Set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart is a queer, fabulist novel about a girl navigating her complicated feelings toward the place she calls home—a place where magic and horror live side by side.
Csilla Tisza, whose hair is as silver as the Danube River, has lost almost everything. Her Jewish family survived the Holocaust only for her parents to be declared enemies of the state and executed four years ago. Now Csilla lives with her aunt, Ilona, her last living relative. The secret police watch their every move, their family’s home has been nationalized and subdivided into smaller apartments, and they are constantly surrounded by antisemitism. Together, Csilla and Ilona are plotting to escape Soviet-controlled Hungary. Yet when Csilla meets two young men—one a mysterious figure who rescues her from the police, the other a student who asks her for a dangerous favor—her plan to abandon Hungary transforms into a resolution to save it.
“Whoever can protest and does not is responsible for what happens without protest.” Csilla recalls her mother sharing this line from the Talmud, a collection of writings about Jewish theology and law. The energy behind this idea fuels This Rebel Heart. In an author’s note included with advance editions of the book, Locke frames their novel as a story about why “showing up matters” in any fight for the future.
This Rebel Heart is a story with grim, heavy stakes, filled with characters who grapple with the answers to impossible questions. How do you love a country that has killed your family? How do you love a family member with blood on their hands? Locke’s prose often has a circular quality to it, repeating phrases and images like refrains or even mantras. Though this technique may, at times, grate on some readers, the repetition also draws attention, again and again, to what these characters have experienced and how these experiences still echo in their lives. A 2020 survey of Americans ages 18 to 39 revealed that almost 1 in 4 believed the Holocaust was either a myth or had been exaggerated, and every day, fewer survivors remain to tell their stories. A friend drives it home to Csilla: “You survived. You survived. You survived.”
Any reader who has ever felt unsure of their place in history will find solace in This Rebel Heart.