TIMEOUT NEW YORK / APRIL 19, 2007
Missives in action
A cache of secret letters forms the core of a new novel about the Holocaust.
By Sarah Weinman
Victoria Redel’s second novel, The Border of Truth, might not feature corpses, tough-talking PIs or other familiar crime-fiction tropes, but its appetite for mystery-solving lends it the momentum and feel of a detective story. In the book, a woman investigates how her ancestors fared during the Holocaust, but her tight-lipped father constantly derails her attempts to understand the past.
“Having any kind of family history means having secrets,” Redel says over coffee at a café on the Upper West Side. “Think of a story you might have been told as a child by a relative, uncle so-and-so. Ten years later, the story gets embellished or edited for any number of reasons.” In The Border of Truth, the character with a story to tell is Richard Leader (born Itzak Lejdel), the octogenarian father of a fortysomething English professor named Sara. Sara’s decision to adopt a child leads her to reconsider conspicuous lacunae in her family history, but Richard has little desire to answer her persistent questions about his adolescence during World War II—especially his experiences as a Jewish refugee trying to flee Europe aboard the ship Quanza.
“Itzak is a first-generation American, and like many immigrants and refugees his age who survived traumatic experiences during the war, he believes that the past should be left behind and not discussed,” explains Redel, 48, who has written a previous novel, Loverboy (2001), and several collections of short fiction and poetry. Sara, on the other hand, follows a path similar to the one documented in Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, sifting through the fragmented and fading pieces of Itzak’s early life to answer lingering questions about her family’s existence.
Sara’s understanding of what actually happened to her father comes late in the book, when she discovers what the reader has already been privy to: a cache of letters Itzak wrote while aboard the Quanza. Addressed to Eleanor Roosevelt, these notes describe the teenager’s trials and tribulations—the boat had to return to Nazi-occupied Brussels after being denied American port—with bursts of bold enthusiasm. But the subsequent horrors he experiences in France and Holland clearly transform him from a jubilant kid into a reticent man. Redel carefully draws contrasts between the youthful Itzak and the reluctant Richard, making the novel resonate in haunting ways.
“I wanted him to be quieter as an old man, someone made cautious by loss,” Redel says. At first, the author intended Itzak to be the primary narrator, and devoted only about 30 pages to Sara. “But I realized,” she says, “with Itzak so unwilling to reveal himself, that Sara’s perspective mattered just as much.” Later drafts developed Sara’s character further, fleshing out her stellar academic career, spotty romantic history and increasing desire to be a mother. The evolving book also nails Sara’s headstrong inquisitiveness, which might have its roots in Redel’s early reading. “As a kid I was a big fan of Nancy Drew,” the author says. “Give me a strong heroine and I’m happy.”
A teacher in the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence College, Redel drew on her own family biography for research. Like Itzak, Redel’s father was on the Quanza, and his recall of certain details—such as the presence of 1930s French actors Marcel Dalio and Madeleine LeBeau—were incorporated into the novel verbatim. But Redel never fully realized how much Itzak’s fading past resembled her father’s until the novel was almost finished. “My father was hospitalized as I was working on the edits,” the novelist recalls. “It struck me that he was part of a generation about to die, and once they do, so would their stories.”
According to Redel, writing the book gave her, like her heroine, a fuller sense of history. But the novelist never pushes for the total exposure of Richard’s past. She remains fascinated by the secrets at her novel’s core. “I’m of the belief that there isn’t one truth,” Redel states. “Writing is all about remaking the truth of an event into mythology.” That’s what novelists—and families—do.