“1938 is a catastrophic date in the history of the Czech people, a people who have never lacked for catastrophic dates”. This novel is told through the eyes of Guido Salvatore Hayek, fifteen-year-old son of a Prague art dealer and a Piedmontese mother, and charts his infatuation with the disdainful Leah Meisel, granddaughter of an antiques dealer his father sets out to cheat. Guido pursues Leah with verses in the style of Heine or Rilke whilst she lures him into her gang of street-thieves and tricksters.
The Hayek family is not quite what it seems: Guido’s loved half-sister Katya, member of an artists’ commune whose work is destroyed for its “degeneracy”, turns out not to be his sister at all. As the march towards war gradually overwhelms what passed for normal life, Guido has to decide whether to redress the wrong done to the Meisels or to convince the unwilling Katya to escape to safety in America. Whilst the Hayeks celebrate a family wedding and try to hold together a disintegrating business as all fractures around them, only Guido’s spiritual adviser and family friend, a Jesuit with atheistical leanings, appears to grasp the scale of the approaching calamity.
It is not just its Mitteleuropean setting that made me think I’d stumbled on a recently rediscovered manuscript of Stefan Zweig or Joseph Roth, but the immersively convincing voice of Kavanagh’s prose in describing this vanished, polyglot world. Leah Meisel’s gang of thieves has none of Dickens’s picturesqueness, and as Prague starts to fill with refugees, “…hopelessness, too, has its odour…a mixture of woodsmoke and incontinence and wet cloth and acrid perspiration”.