A few months ago I read another book by Andrea Cheng, Eclipse, the story of precocious eight year old Peti, the talkative son of Hungarian immigrant parents. Marika, the book I just finished, is narrated by a girl character, a little older than Peti, eleven rather than eight, but it has the same feel of a very serious story about adult problems being told from a child’s point of view.
I’m not sure, judging from the two books I’ve read, that Ms. Cheng is really a juvenile author. I think she writes adult or young adult books with child narrators, told in a child’s voice. The subject matter in the two books includes child abuse, adultery, genocide, and rape (mentioned), and I’m just not convinced that elementary school children would appreciate the rhythm or the content of either book.
That said, however, Marika is a great novel. The blurb in the back of the book says that Andrea Cheng is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants and that Marika, the character and the book, are loosely based on her mother’s story. Marika, the character, is a young Hungarian girl who happens to have three Jewish grandparents. Her family is culturally Catholic, but they can’t escape their Jewish ethnic identity in World War II Budapest. Marika’s struggles to understand this identity and what it means to be Jewish even though you don’t believe in the Jewish religion, even though you don’t want to be Jewish, from the core of the story.
Here’s a sample of Marika’s voice, on the day she is rescued by her father from confinement in a Jewish prison:
“I sat by the window and looked down at the Danube below, flowing so peacefully along its banks. Lots of people wrote poems about the Danube. We had to memorize one in fifth grade about the wind blowing off the water. I recited it to myself, and when I was done, I sobbed.”
That’s the tone of this book: serious, sad, flowing, yet childlike. Marika does mature over the course of the novel, and that growth is reflected in the way she writes about her experiences. However, as the novel ends, and the reader finds out how the war ended for each of the characters in the story, the feelings continue to be mixed. Some survive the war and the Holocaust, and others, of course, do not, a very adult and true lesson to learn about life.