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May 2021

At the End of the World, Turn Left

by Zhanna Slor

Agora Books, 289 pp.

 

Reviewed by Janice Weizman

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What does it mean to have a Jewish heritage if that heritage is not part of your identity? This question is not at the heart of At the End of the World, Turn Left a debut novel by Zhana Slor. Rather, it sneaks up on the plot and surprises it at the very end.  It’s a structural move that rewards following this tale of a young woman’s search for her missing sister through to the conclusion, recasting much of the story in a new, thought-provoking light.

The Pavlov family, once a close knit three- generation clan from the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy, and now Soviet immigrants living for the past 20 years in Wisconsin (chosen in order to live near the American aunt who sponsored them) is in the midst of disintegrating. The elder daughter, 25 year-old Masha, is a trained linguist (the book is replete with her quizzical reflections on specific words and phrases in a variety of languages) who has left the US for Israel, is called home by her father in order to help find her sister Anna, a 19 year old college student, who has disappeared without a trace. Masha soon learns that her mother too has left home, and is now living in New Jersey.

Rather than stay at her father’s house in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Masha crashes in the apartments of old roommates and boyfriends, situated in Riverwest, an area described as “an eclectic but semi-dangerous neighborhood of Milwaukee full of artists and musicians and…a lot of crime.” Riverwest, and the restless community of college students, petty criminals, drug dealers, drifters and “train-hoppers,” who live there, form the backdrop of much of the novel.  As Masha describes it: 

 

"In Riverwest, the sidewalks crash into each other like broken teeth. Homeless people wander the streets aimlessly, begging for change. There is a lot of trash—broken bottles thrown from roofs of drunken house parties, cigarette butts, sometimes even used condoms. But it’s also surrounded by an immensity of color that could almost hurt to look at: an endless array of trees, multi-colored Polish flats, teal and pink and blue with wrap-around wooden porches."

As Masha moves through the colorful streets, homey cafes, local bars and smelly apartments, questioning old friends and acquaintances about Anna’s whereabouts, a picture of the family’s immigrant experience emerges.  For the parents, it’s been a struggle to realize their American dream, a perpetual experience of alienation and foreignness, while for Anna and Masha, who remember virtually nothing of the place they were born, its meant walking a fine line between the incongruent values of home and those of 21st century America, between gratitude for what their parents’ immigration has bequeathed them, and the unresolved identity issues that come with it. Anna, in particular, feels a deep, almost obsessive need to travel to Chernovtsy, in order to better understand who she is. She muses,

I know my parents might see my desire to return to Ukraine as a personal insult to their decision to move. But it’s really not. I get why they came; but I also don’t understand why this means I can never go back. Or why I have to forever be in their debt, when it was their decision, not mine…for most people, it is only the act of being born and raised that they owe.  With immigrants, one adds moving to a new country and having to start a person’s life all over again. And, on top of that, if you are Eastern European and Jewish, like we are, the weight of everything your grandparents survived is compounded on it too; if they hadn’t escaped the Nazis, there would be no parents, no me. Every step I take I am dragging a thousand ghosts behind me.

There are no actual ghosts in this story; instead they are embedded, as Anna senses, deep in her and Masha’s psyches. Masha resolves her feelings of alienation by moving to Israel, where, somewhat idyllically, she feels instantly at home, serves happily in the army, and acquires an Israeli boyfriend, whose sober religiosity attracts her.  Anna, however, dismisses her mother’s suggestion of going on a Birthright tour as “a dating service” where “they brainwash everyone into becoming Zionists.” It’s a telling reaction, one that conveys the complexity of negotiating a Jewish identity in America, particularly when one’s parents and grandparents carry a long experience of anti-Semitism.  As Masha explains,

Growing up, it was always underneath the surface of things, that to be a Jew in Milwaukee you had to condemn Israel also. Part of why I’d been so reluctant to see the place when I was younger was because my peers spent a lot of time repeating anti-Israel talking points they’d read from headlines, and since my family was not part of the local Jewish community, I’d received no counter-education on the matter. This quiet anti-Semitism was so persistent and so fanatical that by the time I left college I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone I was a Jew. This is likely part of why friends from Riverwest were so surprised when I moved there.

Anna’s life is further complicated when she receives an online message from a Ukrainian woman called Zoya, whose claims threaten the family’s already precarious solidarity, and as the story progresses, Masha (and the reader) comes to suspect that Anna has flown to the Ukraine to meet her.  The truth is both less dramatic, and darker. 

Masha and Anna don’t ever actually meet up, at least not within this story, which plays out along two alternating narratives – Anna’s, speaking in 2007, and Masha’s some months later, in 2008. Yet for them, the story ends in open-ended closure, with each asserting her right to pursue a life that makes the most sense to them, forging the identity which feels most authentic. But it’s not going to be easy.  What this book ultimately implies is that the ghosts of all that was left behind are not going anywhere.

 

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