In Gwen Edelman’s 2001 debut novel, “War Story,” a woman travels by train from Paris to Amsterdam to attend the funeral of Joseph, her former lover. On the way, she recalls their time together and the stories he used to tell her of how he emerged scarred but alive from the war and the Holocaust.
“The Train to Warsaw” (Grove Press, 195 pages, $24), Edelman’s second novel, covers similar ground. Jascha and Lilka are two Polish émigrés who separately escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Forty years later, while living in London, Jascha receives a letter inviting him to Warsaw. He is averse to going “Back There,” but Lilka is eager to see her home city once again. Her persuasive powers win the day and as they are shunted by train across a snowy Europe, the past rears up and floods in. Whether in a train carriage, a hotel room or on the freezing Warsaw streets, the couple pool their memories and share their secrets, filling in the blanks caused by the passage of time or by minds that were keen to forget.
Edelman’s novel smacks of simplicity. Its prose is as spare as the naked birch trees in her otherwise blank, wintry landscapes. No secondary characters crowd out the two leads. No literary tricks dupe the reader. Even the book’s title, as literal as that of its predecessor, comes free of hidden meaning.
However, that simplicity is deceptive, a veneer that conceals if not murky depths then a web of complications. As Jascha and Lilka open up, it becomes apparent they know less about their personal selves and more about the other. Jascha’s emotions are constantly in flux, particularly concerning his homeland: “First they want me dead. Now I’m a native son.” Worse, the trip doesn’t only engender private grief, it threatens the pair’s harmony and understanding. “Did we come back to dredge up all our old sorrows? asked Jascha. To poison our relationship?”
Following such speech requires concentration, for Edelman eschews quotation marks. At times, we work to differentiate between where the dialogue ends and where Edelman’s narration resumes. The result is appositely and appealingly disorienting. Easier to pinpoint are the characters’ conflicting viewpoints. Lilka, driven by nostalgia, remembers the scent of pine trees. Jascha, more vodka-fueled, remembers only the stench of corpses: “Poland is a morgue.”
Occasionally, the book feels too reminiscent of “War Story,” both tonally and in terms of structure and content. Joseph was a successful playwright; does Jascha have to be a successful novelist? What is unmistakably original is Edelman’s depiction of the calamitously overfilled and disease-ridden ghetto — deftly juxtaposed with the empty streets or faded opulence of a grand hotel in the present.
“The Train to Warsaw” takes the reader down a bleak and uncomfortable track. Ultimately though, Edelman’s message is redemptive, her novel a moving hymn to the miracle of survival.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.