A REPLACEMENT LIFE by Boris Fishman, Book Review

In Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life, a failing young Russian American journalist’s life is unexpectedly transformed when he forges Holocaust restitution claims for his rogue grandfather and his friends.

Boris Fishman A Replacement LifeA Replacement Life Synopsis:

Young Russian immigrant Slava Gelman wants to be a great American writer, but is only a researcher at a New Yorker-style magazine. When his beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, dies, his grandfather corners him with a request: could he forge a few Holocaust restitution claims? Slava resists at first, but eventually his semi-fictional accounts turn out to be the best writing he has ever done. Although he lives in fear of discovery and continues to stumble from one tragicomic incident to another, by the time Slava is finally confronted by a German government employee he is ready to play a role that is – almost – heroic.

(336 pages, Pushkin Press, July 2015)

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A Replacement Life is a title that languished in my reading pile for far too long — years in fact. Why? I’ll admit that as someone without first hand experience or detailed understanding of the Jewish religion (other than what I’ve absorbed from TV and fiction, of course), in the past I have struggled to fully engage with humour borne from references to Jewish cultural norms.

I have a soft spot for ‘tragicomedies’ and A Replacement Life is a great example of the darker, more serious variety. Fishman establishes the ominous, yet ironic tone from the word go.

The telephone rang just after five. Unconscionably, the day was already preparing to begin, a dark blue lengthening across the sky. Hadn’t the night only started? Slava’s head said so. … “Slava,” a waterlogged voice — his mother — whispered in Russian. … “Your grandmother isn’t,” she said. She burst into tears.

Isn’t. Verbiage was missing. In Russian, you didn’t need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English, you did. In English, she could still be alive.

If it isn’t already obvious, this novel will appeal to word and language enthusiasts. Prior detailed knowledge of Jewish customs or historical migration is not necessary, since the largely instrospective narrative explores the nexus between cultural and personal identity — proving entertainingly educational.

Characters with authenticity

The sharp edges, surly demeanours and cunning of Fishman’s senior citizen characters are endearing in their authenticity. Along with the narrator, readers soon learn that what at first seems black and white quickly becomes grey when real personalities and stories of bravery and sacrifice come into play.

This is also a story about a writer struggling for inspiration, and learning the hard way that it can be found in situations he least expects. They say everyone has a story in them, but it may not necessarily be one of your own choosing.

Our great realizations are slow dishes, but once they’re ready, they announce themselves as suddenly as an oven timer.

Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life is a cleverly written literary debut that offers much to reflect upon — on relationships, identity and legacy.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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Genre: Literature, Drama, Mystery, Romance

About the Author, Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1988 at nine. His journalism, essays, and criticism have appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The London Review of Books, the Guardian, and many other publications. His first novel, A Replacement Life, won the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. He lives in New York. His second novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo was published in 2016.

Other reviews of A Replacement Life

Goodreads, The Guardian, NYTimes, Newsweek

* My receiving a copy of A Replacement Life from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.