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the world to come by dara horn

June 27, 2008

A doll inside of a doll inside of a doll. They are magical for children. As nested stories, they are enchanting for me. Writer Reading was talking about stories nested inside of stories, and has written a very, very short nested story. I just finished reading The World to Come, which fits the description of “nested” more perfectly than any book I have read recently.

The author, Dara Horn, (her website) was born in New Jersey in 1977. She is the author of the novels In the Image (W. W. Norton) and The World to Come (Hamish Hamilton/W. W. Norton), and has received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, and the National Jewish Book Awards’ First Time Author Award. Horn holds a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and started working on her novels while in graduate school out of a “desperate need to write something without footnotes.”

The story begins with Benjamin Ziskind stealing a small, Chagall painting from a singles event at a Jewish museum. He believes this painting once hung in his family’s living room, and that it rightly belongs to him. While Ben and his twin sister Sara try to decide what to do with the painting, the next story is revealed. It is the 1920’s, and Marc Chagall is teaching art to boys orphaned by pogroms in the Soviet Union. Thousands of children have been orphaned by Stalin’s cleansing, and many talented Jewish writers and artists teach at these orphanages, also including Chagall’s friend, Der Nister (the Hidden One). While Chagall goes on to fame and fortune, his friend finds his life becoming bleaker and bleaker the more he writes. We follow both of their stories to the end.

The novel follows the Ziskind’s story backwards and the painting’s creation by Chagall forward, mixed with history, art, biography, theology, Yiddish literature, and musings on life before birth and after death. Other stories nested within this story are that of the Ziskinds’ mother, who writes children’s books, and their father and his tour in Viet Nam, and the injuries he suffered there. There is also a love angle for the awkward Benjamin.

What is true, what is fake, what does it mean? Eighty years before the theft, these questions haunted Chagall and Der Nister. Traveling through time, the Ziskinds’ futures are shaped by the painting and these same questions.

In an interview by the publisher, Horn is asked if there is any way to define the spiritual point of view of the story. Her response was:

In the novel there’s a moment when a daughter asks her mother if she believes in reincarnation. The mother says no. She tells her daughter that to believe that your life is only a rehearsal, or that you will eventually have an infinite number of chances to get it right, would make living meaningless. But she does believe in a bond between the living and the dead. She tells her daughter that people who have passed away are in the same world as those in their families who haven’t yet been born. In this world to come, as she sees it, the dead spend their eternity shaping the characteristics of their descendants.

This says a great deal about the book. The full interview is here.

The biggest disappointment for me was the feeling of an unfinished ending. There is no real conclusion, only hints and ideas of what might be. Beyond that, this is a complicated story, very well told. I enjoyed this book and had a hard time putting it down when necessary.

I did some further reading about nested stories, and came across a book I plan to read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004). It won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year award, and was short-listed for the 2004 Booker Prize, Nebula Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and other awards placing it among the most-honored works of fiction in recent history. Why have I never heard of this book? Even the cover is gorgeous.

The book consists of six nested stories that take us from the remote South Pacific in the nineteenth century to the far future after a nuclear apocalypse. Each tale is revealed to be a story that is read (or watched) by the main character in the next. It is on my list for the next trip to the library. I will let you know what I think after reading it. The Washington Post has an excellent review of Cloud Atlas.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2008 7:04 am

    I’m sure I’ve read nested stories, but I’ve never really heard this term before. It makes me quite curious to learn more, so thank you for the links and recommendations -which I will follow forthwith!

  2. June 27, 2008 7:28 am

    I will be interested to hear your take on it. I would love to have the talent to write like this. Something to aim for and work on. We can talk about it on Write on Wednesday!

  3. June 28, 2008 5:57 am

    Thank you for the mention. This is a fantastic review and made me want to read the book. I admire that a writer can use her doctorate study to write fiction. Her book seems incredibly rich. I love the notion of six nested stories. This is a great post, extremely well-written, intelligent and insightful.

  4. June 28, 2008 6:11 am

    You are correct, WR. Incredibly rich is a good description of this book. It is a mystery – or mysteries – but at the same time the history, Yiddish literature, theology, and art make it, well, rich!
    I too, am anxious to read Cloud Atlas, with its six nested stories. I am so surprised I had never heard of it, after learning all the awards it won.

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