A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin
Goodreads says that “The story of Anna Grieve and her fragile older sister, Esther, begins in Russia in the 1880s. The vicious persecution of Jews has come to such a point that the girls’ mother makes the decision to send her children to Winnipeg with her wealthy employers.” They also add, “When Anna receives the unexpected news of Esther’s possible suicide on “If Day,” an unusual day in WWII history when a simulated Nazi attack took place in Winnipeg in order to raise funds for the war effort, she immediately returns to Canada. Only she can piece together what really happened all those years ago in Russia…”
I must admit that after I got this book, I almost regretted the request and avoided reading it for a while. With all the depressing news across the globe, I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for something that sounded depressing, and for some reason I thought this was going to be more about the Holocaust. However, after realizing that this debut novel is something of a family history Chisvin, I decided to put my trepidation aside and get on with it, mostly because I like to read new authors, and partially because I’ve had a family history novel in my own head for a while now.
The problem with a book that is based in your own family history is that there are always so many stories you want to include. They’re the ones we grew up hearing, and they’re all so juicy. Unfortunately, not every piece of family legend makes good fiction, because novels require a central conflict for resolution. Combining large amounts of unconnected information, tends to pull the focus away from that conflict. For me, this was the biggest problem I found in Chisvin’s story, which was otherwise a fascinating tale. For example, there’s a whole section of the book where Anna ends up getting deported from the US to Soviet Russia. While I believe I understand why Chisvin kept this in the story (probably due to an earlier reference in the book), I felt this section, despite it being very interesting, was superfluous to the rest of the action in this book.
I also got the feeling that Chisvin was conflicted in what to present here. Was this book supposed to be about Anna’s need to discover if Esther’s death was suicide, an accident, or murder? Or was it supposed to be a portrait of Anna, who was a truly remarkable woman, and worthy of a novel based on her adventures? It felt that Chisvin wasn’t ready to sacrifice either of these plots, and instead decided to combine them together, with them both as main storylines, without either of them taking a back seat to the other. To achieve this, Chisvin needed to include a whole lot of flashbacks, which in and of themselves were very appealing. However, for me, because the book follows both parallel plots, these many flashbacks end up muddling the focus of the story. What I’m trying to say here is that I think Chisvin should have written two novels and not just one. The first should have been Anna’s story, and the other should have been about the mystery surrounding Esther’s death.
While writing this review, I suddenly thought about Rachel Joyce’s two novels – the first about Harold Fry and later, her book about Queenie Hennessey. In those two books, Joyce took one story and pulled them apart to show two connecting yet diverging sides of the same tale. Had Chisvin taken that example, she would have had not one, but two potentially five-star novels on her hand. I say this because I honestly believe Chisvin has shown about that much talent here, and that’s why I still enjoyed reading this novel. Chisvin knows how to stimulate her readers’ imagination, painting pictures of Russia, Winnipeg and New York that feel real and alive. Chisvin also showed a gift for writing believable dialogue, not to mention a flair for developing empathetic characters, and a forte for devising intriguing story lines.
So, while I’m sorry Chisvin didn’t think of writing two books instead of one larger novel with two equally major storylines, I still think this was an admirable first novel. In fact, I look forward to seeing what Chisvin comes up with next time. For all this, I believe I can still recommend this book (with reservations and knowing full well that what bothers me might not detract from this book in someone else’s opinion) and give it three and a half stars out of five.
Second Story Press released "A Fist Around the Heart" by Heather Chisvin on April 10, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes iBook, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.