World War II remains in the public consciousness as a certain businessman, currently running for President of the United States, is evoking comparisons to a certain Austrian in power in Germany in 1941. Kim Brooks’ first novel reminds us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The Houseguest begins in the summer of 1941, when the war in Europe was happening to other people, when a boatload of Jewish refugees, denied entry into Cuba, was also turned away at the port of Miami, left to return to Europe or die at sea.
Brooks has assembled a compelling cast of characters. In Utica, New York, a junkman and his wife take in a refugee, an actress who refuses to conform to the role of grateful houseguest. The couple’s rabbi, Max Hoffmann, finds himself acting as eyes and ears for Shmuel Spiro, the head of the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, at conferences where Spiro isn’t welcome. And refugee Ana Beidler bewitches Abe Auer, her host, while bedeviling men from her past.
A comparison to the present notwithstanding, this is a powerful book. There are very few Gentile characters, so this allows for more nuanced portraits of its Jewish characters. They exist not as counterpoints to Gentiles but to each other. As Spiro puts it, there are Jews in America and there are American Jews, and there is a difference. And tragedy is writ large in the past of several characters; they have been tested long before Hitler came to power. By the end of the book, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor, so war has come to the United States.