Under Budapest: Breathtaking

                             

It is such a pleasure to write this post. My former McMaster colleague (I suppose we’re still colleagues? alumni colleagues?) and occasional writers group members Ailsa Kay has published a breathtaking novel that I just loved. It’s something of an odd relief to love it – there’s a bit of nervousness in reading a novel written by someone you know (what if I don’t like it?) – with the only risk now that I won’t do anything close to justice to how great of a read it is (and note that I’m not often one for reviews filled with effusive praise).

The plot is described on the back of the novel as a “jigsaw puzzle” and I suppose that’s an apt comparison (with a caveat): the early chapters offer apparently discrete plot pieces with separate settings and characters. As each subsequent chapter unfolds, however, the reader finds edges to the pieces that echo earlier chapters in a way that confirms the pieces do in fact fit together. For instance, I was amazed how the repetition of a single word “veritable” proved enough of a narrative cue to pull this reader back to the earlier narrator and connect the two pieces. The caveat is that I think the puzzle comparison makes too much of discrete parts. The only real gap is from the first chapter to the second and from there on this reader felt quite sure that the unfolding plot was crafted in such a way that the pieces were not “scattered” so much as deliberately and thoughtfully placed – one following the other. I suppose, though, there is some of the triumph that comes from assembling a puzzle – in watching as the whole picture takes shape and in seeing the connections. 

What is most remarkable is the way Kay achieves this pulling together. The seamless (and truly remarkable) ease in which the third person limited narration moves allows the reader to know more than any one character and so to see the whole in a way the characters themselves cannot. For this reader I felt an agonizing frustration as I wanted to share – to yell! – at the characters what I knew so that they might avoid making mistakes and poor choices.

This care I felt for the characters is somewhat surprising given that they are, for the most part, not overly sympathetic. Tibor, in particular is just. so. sad. His anxiety combined with his fumbling attempts at coming across as self-assured are cringe-worthy. His mother (name escapes me at the moment) oh wait – Agi/Agnes – is superbly drawn with her different modes of being in Toronto/Budapest as clearly marked as the change in her name. 

Oh! Speaking of Toronto/Budapest: what a novel for setting! Think back to *The Night Circus* and the brilliance of setting there – this book sees setting (as the title suggests) as integral to the plot and characters, and is a character in and of itself. Budapest has a personality just as much as Tibor or Agi (and to a lesser extent Toronto) that makes the unfolding history/mystery all the more compelling as it reads like a biography rather than simple description. 

**Some spoilers**

While I could gush all day I ought to register my few complaints – I was not totally sold on the betrayal of Agi by Gusomethingsomething for Zsofia. Gu***’s explanation of his sudden devotion reads a bit thin, and I might have rather the affair been an ongoing thing rather than something that emerged in the moment of the revolution. Though as I write this I see some symbolic merit to this origin point, I still feel the treachery to be too sudden to effect the kind of torment Gu*** goes on to feel.

**spoilers done**

That said I cannot – I can’t! – recommend this book with any more urgency or conviction. Go read it! The combination of genius plotting, masterful character development and an utterly rich setting makes it impossible to put down and a true delight to read. 

(note: I’m predicting a bestseller – so read it now while it’s still hip to be in the know about the hottest new read) 

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

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