Book review: The Slaughterman’s Daughter

Iczkovits is a born storyteller and has done his research for this historical novel


The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits (Maclehose Press, £18.99)

Yaniv Iczkovits was born in Israel in 1975, part of the generation that includes Eshkol Nevo (Neuland), Nir Baram (Good People) and Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Liar). This is his fourth novel.

The previous three all either won or were shortlisted for prestigious prizes in Israel and The Slaughterer’s Daughter comes bearing accolades from David Grossman, George Szirtes and Gary Shteyngart.

A number of things distinguish The Slaughterman’s Daughter from most contemporary Israeli fiction. First, it is a historical novel set not in Palestine, Israel or the Holocaust but in the Russian Pale in the 1890s, a world of godforsaken villages, slaughtermen, pedlars and desperately poor wives who dream of leaving.

One of these wives is Fanny Keismann, the daughter of a schochet, in her mid-20s, a devoted wife, with five children. One night, she runs away to find Zvi-Meir, the man who has left her sister, Mende.

The husbands of the area have been vanishing for years. The novel begins with the story of one such husband and then comes the story of Zvi-Meir who, without a word of explanation, abandons his wife and family to poverty and destitution. But a wife and mother abandoning her family? Whoever heard of such a thing?

The novel follows Fanny Keismann’s adventures in the violent world of the Pale. This violence is the second distinctive feature of the novel. Fanny was known in her home town to be a vilde chaya, a wild animal. As a child, she had wanted to be a schochet, like her father and his father before him.

Fanny gives up on this, but she still carries her sharp knife and knows how to wield it, which comes in useful when she and her travelling companion, Zizek Breshov, are set upon by a gang of thugs. The fetid breath of one “reeks of rotten teeth, kvass and salted meat.”

She carefully examines the neck of one of her assailants, and, “without further ado, slits his throat in one swift motion.” She then “spins to her right in a flash and slices open the other brother’s neck… The air is heavy with a latrinelike stench.”

The narrative describes Fanny’s adventures as she and Zizek go in search of her brother-inlaw, last heard of in Minsk. They join up with two other travellers: Shleiml, a cantor and schnorrer, and Captain Adamsky, an innkeeper, a hero from the Crimean War and a vicious
antisemite. The four unlikely travelling companions are pursued by Colonel Novak and his hapless policemen, a sort of 19th-century Russian Keystone cops.

The novel is full of fascinating historical detail. Iczkovits has done his research. But, best of all, is the writing. He is a born storyteller. The novel is packed with terrific characters: Leib Stein, the child catcher, “Radzetsky the Terrible” and the Borokowskys who set upon Fanny and Zizek.

Iczkovits moves between the present and the past creating a fascinating backstory for his characters. The plot races along. This is a book you will not want to put down. It’s full of energy, part farce, part adventure story. Iczkovits is clearly a talent to watch and The Slaughterman’s
is the place to start.

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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