A Fist around the Heart

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews - KAREN RIGBY

Heather Chisvin Sec­ond Story Press (APRIL) Soft­cover $19.95 (240pp) 978-1-77260-065-0

Heather Chisvin’s pensive, elo­quent novel traces the paths of two Rus­sian Jewish sis­ters: one based in Win­nipeg, the other in Man­hat­tan; one who com­mits sui­cide, one a sur­vivor left with unan­swer­able ques­tions. It re­veals the trauma that fol­lows im­mi­grants to new shores.

When Anna is called back to Canada, where she and her el­der sis­ter, Es­ther, were sent as chil­dren to avoid pogroms, she re­fuses to be­lieve that Es­ther’s death was a sui­cide. Through ex­changes with a lo­cal in­spec­tor, her sis­ter’s jour­nals, well-timed flash­backs, and a spi­ral­ing jour­ney through her own mem­o­ries, Anna weighs key events that shaped her fam­ily. A his­tory of loss leads to a haunt­ing por­trait of Es­ther’s men­tal ill­ness.

With a grace­ful, re­al­is­tic bal­ance of fond­ness and dis­may, Es­ther is drawn through Anna’s mem­o­ries as a frag­ile, elu­sive beauty, as much a bur­den as she is beloved. Anna, who left her adopted fam­ily’s home un­der dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances, is made stronger by ne­ces­sity.

De­ter­mined to stay in New York on her own terms, she moves from a po­si­tion sewing coats in a fac­tory to thriv­ing as a door-to-door sales­woman. Along the way, mod­ern ac­tivism and fem­i­nism ar­rive in the form of Mar­garet Sanger, whose in­flu­ence shapes Anna’s per­spec­tive. A few ro­mances add color to an oth­er­wise brood­ing plot.

Mas­ter­ful in its bleak, win­try land­scapes, mea­sured pac­ing, and un­spo­ken rifts be­tween a Rus­sia that no longer ex­ists and a new world that for Es­ther never en­tirely paves over a vi­o­lent past, Chisvin’s work strikes deep chords and cap­tures the pain of car­ing for some­one who is slip­ping away.

As Anna re­counts seg­ments of her life along­side Es­ther’s, the dif­fer­ences be­tween them leave chasms that no one can cross: why one mind re­treats while an­other finds ways to press for­ward, and why, de­spite all the signs, sui­cide still comes as a shock when it hap­pens. A Fist around the Heart is a dark psy­cho­log­i­cal gem.

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