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Family ties

The World to Come A Novel Dara Horn W.W. Norton: 316 pp., $24.95

January 15, 2006|Natalie Danford | Natalie Danford is co-editor of the Best New American Voices series, which showcases emerging writers.

DARA HORN does not aim low. Her first novel, "In the Image," in which a teenager's death gave rise to an odd and affecting friendship between the dead girl's grandfather and her best friend, paid homage to the book of Genesis right in its title. Her second, the equally compelling and luxuriously layered "The World to Come," opens with what reads like a riff on Tolstoy's oft-quoted all-happy-families-are-alike opening to "Anna Karenina":

"There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will."

From that beginning, the story narrows in on a cerebral character -- 30-year-old Ben Ziskind, who hails from just such a cloistered family. Ben starts the action with a furtive bang when he attends a singles event at the fictional Museum of Hebraic Art in New York and steals a Chagall painting "smaller than a piece of notebook paper" that he is sure once belonged to his family.

Though Ben remains a focus of the book, Horn works in constellatory fashion. This arrangement elegantly serves her enormous themes (life and death, for starters) and helps to mask one of the pesky flaws in her otherwise top-notch novel: If you've ever seen a Woody Allen movie or read a Philip Roth novel, Ben Ziskind is a touch familiar. He's recently divorced, left in the dust after a brief marriage to a woman he never understood. Although he's a short, glasses-wearing nebbish who weighs in at 123 pounds, he has always fantasized about someday taking over as the host of a quiz show ("American Genius") for which he pens esoteric questions.

However, Ben makes an excellent hub for the tales of the other members of his family, whose stories radiate from his like spokes on a wheel. His sister, Sara, an artist who precociously painted elaborate murals of their father after his death when she was a fifth-grader, is a few minutes Ben's junior and carries "a residual sorrow" from the short period she spent in the womb without him. Now Sara is pregnant and married to the man who as a boy was Ben's refusenik pen pal in Russia (although Leonid never answered any of Ben's hilariously self-important letters, which included phrases such as "Greetings from the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" and "As I mentioned before I have done a lot of reading about prisons, and I notice that they always describe them as painted in very dull colors, and my school is also painted in these kinds of colors").

The pasts of Ben and Sara's parents -- details of which have been hidden from the twins -- are also revealed. Their father Daniel's lost leg was the result of a Vietnam War injury. He became estranged from his own family -- not for religious reasons but due to political differences -- to marry their mother, Rosalie, who was raised in the Soviet Union by a father who was eventually arrested and imprisoned for "Zionist conspiracy" to bring down the state.

As a young orphan in the 1920s, Rosalie's father, Boris, lived in a Jewish Boys' Colony that also housed the boys' art teacher, "Comrade Chagall," and the Yiddish writer Der Nister, "the hidden one." (In her author's note, Horn explains that Chagall and Der Nister did indeed reside at the Jewish Boys' Colony at Malakhovka, and that a Chagall painting was stolen from the Jewish Museum in New York in 2001, although its trajectory was different from the one in the book.)

These characters' lives unfold in perfectly paced prose. Horn's deft touch is often wryly funny -- but never maliciously so. And her structure is wonderfully nonlinear. The present-day story of Ben and his theft and the history of Der Nister loop in and out of the other pieces, which are presented in isolated blocks. Images gain weight as they reappear. When 6-year-old Sara examines her father's truncated leg, her parents tell her it was chomped off by a tiger. Then in a later chapter about Daniel's experience in Vietnam, the whole truth comes to light.

In addition to humor, Horn also sprinkles juicy bits of Jewish history and folklore throughout. (The author, who is not yet 30, will soon complete a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard.) But the mysterious process by which the Ziskinds imprint their values and experiences on one another and then fan out into the world to imprint others is universal.

How disappointing, then, to reach the final pages and find that the novel simply ends. A dangerous situation occurs, and one of the main characters heads into said situation to save another. And then the reader is abandoned without the outcome being revealed. Horn does tack on a sweet fable about the world of the "not yets" who have been "sentenced to birth" and spend nine months in a surreal environment where they attend classes on the history of their family. Having Sara's unborn son drink heavily at a bar that serves literature in bottles is clever, but it doesn't make up for leaving readers in the lurch.

Yet even that jarring misstep doesn't stop "The World to Come" from standing as an accomplished work that beautifully explains how families -- in all their maddening, smothering, supportive glory -- create us. *

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