Hedwig and Berti
Hedwig and Berti is the saga of a mismatched upper-class German Jewish couple who escape from Nazi Germany, going first to London, then New York, and finally Kansas. The overbearing Hedwig and diminutive Berti must cope with the culture shock of a new home, a lower class way of life, as well as unwanted memories of the past. The birth of a daughter, a strange, combative, rather ugly child with a genius for music, ultimately unlocks a secret of the past, one which is perhaps better left alone.
This is a remarkable novel about failed people, loss, and above all, the effects of prejudice. Intolerance from within their own family defines them. Bigotry from without drives the direction of their lives. Both ultimately contribute to their personal tragedies.
The story is told in a lighter, more humorous tone than the subject matter would suggest. Frieda Arkin’s prose is witty and unsentimental. Her style is spare yet colorful. Characters are drawn sharply and expertly. One will recognize members of their own family in them, and perhaps even a bit of themselves. The 88-year-old author writes as freshly as a teenager, but with the touch of a master, resulting in a book that is both marvelously entertaining and memorably illuminating.
If there is a fault, it is that at times the writing is too clever. The author’s unexpected similes and creative comparisons provide much of the flavor of the book, however they can be repetitious and occasionally even jolting, like a fine recipe that is a bit overseasoned. This is a minor point, however, and I heartily recommend this fine work of fiction.