Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 340 pages, $27
Moral dilemmas and questions abound in local author Jessica Keener’s second novel, Strangers in Budapest. The story focuses on Will and Anna, who move from Massachusetts to Budapest, Hungary, with their adopted baby, Leo, for Will’s not-yet-jelled business. Eight months later, they meet Edward Weiss, an angry older man who believes his troubled daughter Deborah was murdered by her Hungarian husband. Although the encounter and other events awaken memories of personal tragedies Anna’s running from, she agrees to help Edward—against Will’s wishes.
Keener reveals the poisonous mulch of trauma lurking within both Edward and his possibly murderous son-in-law who were traumatized in Hungary: Edward in World War II, and his son-in-law in the 1956 revolution. Edward’s thoughts play out through a monologue of bitterness and malicious intent, while his woes are confounded by the negative memories of his dead daughter, who he saw as a magnet for losers such as her husband. Anna, at times ambivalent and at times empathetic, suffers through Edward’s rudeness.
Some comic relief comes from Will’s former boss Bernardo, who’s full of crude opportunism. He brings a breath of American air—though not entirely fresh—to Hungary. Meanwhile, Keener depicts Budapest as its own character, with beauty, suffering and colorful revolutionary attitudes. Full of suspense and sorrow, the novel portrays a need for resolution through revenge—psychological and political.
From Page 121: “The cab stopped on a side street in front of Club Z where a small crowd of twenty-somethings milled outside the door, smoking cigarettes. Girls posed in black fishnet stockings, black miniskirts, hair henna-dyed an orange-red, which Annie saw everywhere in Budapest, all of them wearing that Hungarian expression of disinterest that hid deeper emotions of distrust mixed with even deeper cravings to connect.” ◆