January 2003

Resurrecting a wartime affair

By Frederick Busch
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For all who care to linger, the pleasures of the written word are on ample display in Frederick Busch's new novel, A Memory of War. A prolific and acclaimed writer with more than two dozens books to his credit, Busch offers a challenge to readers, but one well worth the effort.

As the novel opens in 1985, the seemingly unflappable existence of psychologist Alex Lescziak is disrupted when a man named William Kessler declares that Alex is his brother. Apparently Alex's Jewish mother had an affair with a German prisoner of war during World War II. Skeptical yet troubled, Alex winds up at the New York Public Library, poring over old newspapers. Thus he initiates the process of re-examining his past, summoning forth memories and conjuring up unfamiliar images of his parents.

The Lescziaks, Polish ŽmigrŽs, settled in Great Britain before moving on to the U.S. Sylvia Lescziak and her husband, Januscz, performed necessary but menial tasks in support of the Allied effort. Perhaps Sylvia had desires her husband could not fulfill. Enter Otto Kessler.

Frederick Busch portrays this wartime romance exclusively through Alex's imagination. Even so, the affair has amazing clarity and depth. Alex, however, remains a somewhat elusive figure, nearly overshadowed by his mother's more elaborate tale. His unhappiness at a failing marriage and guilt over an ongoing affair with a patient (Nella) is apparent; what's behind his dilemma isn't so clear.

As A Memory of War progresses, its story is fleshed out, and the issues at stake are put into relief. Latent tensions between Sylvia and Januscz rise to the surface; an element of suspense is introduced, as a search for the now missing Nella intensifies; and Alex musters sufficient resolve to make a last overture to his wife, Liz, and to offer Kessler a few well-chosen words of advice.

A Memory of War is not a book leavened by humor or easy resolutions; it may strike some as just plain depressing. For those readers hardy enough to stick around, the reward comes in the usual ways: prose that shimmers and a sensibility that respects the difficulty of devising a happy, sustainable life in or out of wartime. Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.

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A Memory of War

A Memory of War

By Frederick Busch
ISBN 9780393049787

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