Music for Wartime

Viking. Jul. 2015. 240p. ISBN 9780525426691. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698195523.
OrangeReviewStarSeveral of the stories in this new collection (following The Hundred-Year House) are inspired by the author's own singular family history; her grandfather was the architect of Hungary's infamous Jewish Laws before World War II, while her grandmother was a heroic, antifascist Hungarian novelist. Some of the historical tales read like fables, a fact acknowledged by the author herself in a parenthetical meta aside at the end of the first story: "(But I've made it sound like a fable, haven't I? I've lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairytale number.)" While more than a few of the stories are set in wartime Hungary or among Hungarian immigrant families in postwar America, the subject matter and settings range widely, most strikingly in a delightfully strange and amusing tale about a lonely Chicago woman who coughs up a hairball that grows into a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Makkai is a musical writer with a strong voice, and this work is reminiscent of Elizabeth McCracken's recent collection Thunderstruck, in tone if not in content.
VERDICT Themes of guilt, loss, survival, and memory infuse the entire book, which is rife with sentences that will stop you in your tracks with their strangeness and profundity.

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