Review: A Replacement Life

Truth, lies and immigrant traditions


By Boris Fishman
One, £12.99

One of the most exciting developments in American literature in recent years has been the emergence of a new generation of Jewish writers from the former Soviet Union. Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) was born in Leningrad, Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men) was born in Moscow, and Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life - his first novel - was born in Minsk in Belarus.

Fishman has given the others a head start but, judging from A Replacement Life, he is catching up fast and emerging as one of America's best thirty-something writers.

What is immediately striking is the ambition. Fishman has written a big story about lies, truth and fiction, all grounded in a moving story that goes back to the Holocaust in Belarus.

The central character is Slava Gelman, a magazine journalist in his mid-20s living in Manhattan. He is desperate to make his name writing for "Century", a New Yorker-style magazine which floats between highbrow and middlebrow. But then his grandfather has more urgent uses of Slava's writing skills and the novel moves into the dark past of his grandparents' generation.

Slava becomes involved with two women - Arianna, a fact-checker at Century, and Vera, like Slava descended from immigrants from the old country. The two women are both young and attractive, but they offer two very different choices. Arianna stands for Manhattan, a world away from Slava's humble, immigrant family. Vera, like his grandparents, lives in Brooklyn, is closely bound to her family and represents the past, family - and lies.

This is the heart of Fishman's novel. The closer Slava gets to the old people's past, the more it is bound up with invention and fabrication. Their stories about the war and the Holocaust, and about how the family got out of the former Soviet Union, are falsehoods.But, and this is perhaps the novel's greatest achievement, behind each of the central untruths, there is a great moral truth. A Replacement Life is about what Primo Levi called "the grey zone", an area where clear moral choices are not an easy option.

This is epitomised by Slava himself. Despite everything, he is a sympathetic hero. Young, innocent, desperate to make a new life for himself in the glittering lights of Manhattan and get away from his family, he is pulled back to them when his beloved grandmother dies. He tries to do the right thing but, even when he doesn't, we feel for him.

At first, the question is whether Slava is a nice guy or a nice guy who is a shmendrik? Then things take a different turn and we start to wonder, is he perhaps as untrustworthy as his grandfather, or is he something even worse?

The novel is a fascinating read, an astonishing debut. And Fishman has a terrific turn of phrase. When we arrive in Brooklyn, for example, "the buildings were smaller and the people larger." Of Slava's grandfather's carer, he writes: "like a Soviet high-rise, each floor of Berta was stuffed beyond capacity." Fishman is the most exciting new writer I have read in years.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive