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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Abigail

by
Szabó Magda


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Abigail



Title: Abigail
Author: Szabó Magda
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 336 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Abigail - US
Abigail - UK
Abigail - Canada
Abigaël - France
Abigél - Deutschland
Abigail - Italia
  • Hungarian title: Abigél
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Len Rix

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thoroughly engaging, but a bit young-adult (and not because so many of the characters are)

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 19/1/2020 Becca Rothfeld
The Spectator . 8/2/2020 M.Ross-Southall
Wall St. Journal . 24/1/2020 Anna Mundow


  From the Reviews:
  • "Len Rix’s translation is deft, but Szabo’s frank, conversational prose takes a back seat to her sinuous plotting: The novel unspools its secrets over many pages, and the resulting tour de force is taut with suspense. (...) Abigail is at once harrowing and mesmerizing, all the more so because we glimpse its dramas through the uncomprehending lens of Gina’s youthful simplicity." - Becca Rothfeld, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Throughout the novel, Szabó’s characters are vivid and amusingly authentic. (...) Szabó is skilful, too, at creating moments of heart-rending tension, often through exquisite, evocative prose. (...) Abigail sets up a world of two halves: the naive fantasies and ‘petty cruelties’ of teenage schoolgirls ‘who could think of nothing more’, and the sombre realities of war (...). It’s when these two collide that the novel has a devastating power." - Mika Ross-Southall, The Spectator

  • "(A) tense, intimate narrative that brilliantly depicts youthful innocence ensnared by lethal menace. (...) Hope and fear, inevitably, go hand in hand. For nothing is certain, in Szabó’s cosmology, but death and the need for endurance, a quality embodied by her most memorable female characters. (...) Yet for all its heartbreak, this deceptively simple novel in its atmosphere and setting is one of Szabó’s airiest." - Anna Mundow, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Although titled Abigail, the central character in the novel is Georgina Vitay, called Gina, a fourteen-year-old girl when the novel starts in the fall of 1943. Her life is suddenly upended when her governess, Marcelle, who had basically raised the girl -- Gina's mother died when she was two -- has to return to France; as her father explained: "Marcelle's and Gina's countries were on opposing sides, and it was impossible for the young Frenchwoman to continue living with them". The war has otherwise not impacted the family's Budapest life too much, but, though the teen is barely aware of it, the military tide is turning -- and leads her father, a general (i.e. in the thick of things), to take even more drastic action, packing Gina off to a remote boarding school, the forbidding Bishop Matula Academy in Árkod.
       Gina pouts, unhappy about her exile -- and suspects that dad wants her out of the way because there's another woman involved. In fact, the General sends her away for her own protection, and his only possible peace of mind. He doesn't tell her immediately, but eventually comes clean: it's become clear that: "we have lost the war", he reveals to her, and he is part of a group trying to salvage what they can before the Germans invade. His actions put him in danger -- and, by extension her. The only solution is to hide her away at this remote institution, cut off from her old world -- no one must know she is there, and she can have no written contact with the outside world, even him. Only if she can not be tracked down from outside are she -- and her father's cause -- safe.
       The Matula is, too say the least, a shock to her system. Gina is allowed to keep nothing personal, required to don the institution's uniform -- "on close inspection, well tailored from cloth of the finest quality" but otherwise horrifying -- and thrust into a world of rigid rules, where you're not even supposed to: "ask questions without prior permission". Her initial encounters with her classmates go reasonably well, but when Gina doesn't go along with one of the girls' games and customs and is seen to betray them she finds herself completely ostracized. Which is almost fine with her, leading her to try to make a break for it and try get herself back to where she thinks she belongs, Budapest.
       Her escape attempt is thwarted -- they're very, very watchful at the Matula -- and, learning just why her father has placed her here, she soon has little choice but to resign herself to sticking it out there. For a while it is difficult, because the other girls continue to shun her, but eventually they all make up and Gina comes to fit in better in the close-knit group that is her classmates. Not that she doesn't still struggle with a feeling of being abandoned -- as well as with oh so strict rules of the school.
       The Abigail of the title isn't a fellow student or teacher, but rather a statue on the school grounds. As the other girls explain to Gina, "miracle-working Abigail" is always there for them: "If you're in trouble, serious trouble, she really will help you. She always does." Gina of course doesn't take them seriously -- it sounds too silly.
       Szabó doesn't push this Abigail too much to the fore; for long it seems more or less just an odd school legend one might chuckle over when passing the statue in the garden. There are, however, times when this unknown, almost spectral helping hand does become not so much a presence as a vital intercessor, especially when things start to get really serious. There are moments of crisis when Gina finds messages signed 'Abigail'; as the situation in Hungary -- and for Gina's father -- deteriorate, the mysterious force takes on a more significant role.
       The school is incredibly strict, with stringent rules and expectations, but ultimately not as terrible a place as it sounds. It takes Gina time to adapt, but eventually even she, like the other girls, finds a way to make the best of it, enjoying themselves to the extent they can.
       The adults are, of course, a world apart, but play a significant role in the lives of the students. There's the daunting director, for one, as well as the awkward love triangle between Sister Susanna -- the prefect in charge of Gina's class, and teachers Kalmár and Kőnig. All the girls adore Kalmár -- and hope to see him win over his great love, Susanna -- while Kőnig is considered a weak, silly man, especially by Gina. It is Kőnig, however, that Susanna pines for -- while the foolish man seems to have his heart set on former student and now something between grand dame in town and town-eccentric, Mitsi Horn.
       On rare outings from the school-grounds -- to church, or to Mitsi Horn's for example -- the students do get occasional glimpses of the political situation in the country, with a local 'Árkod dissident' putting up shocking messages against the regime. Fast-forwarding then from Christmas to the German occupation of Hungary in March, 1944, the situation comes to a head, with Gina long not having heard from her father and then suddenly finding the opportunity to hopefully be reünited with him -- only to quickly find herself in true peril.
       In the action-packed resolution, where childish games like Gina's previous escape attempts suddenly have much higher stakes, Gina learns what readers will have already noticed, that she was a bit naïve and her judgments of people often too hasty and simplistic. Specifically, it's the people she had long set herself again -- such as Kőnig, even though he's managed to smooth over many situations previously, and Mitsi Horn -- who prove to be the most helpful. Meanwhile, she also learns she had completely -- and dangerously -- deluded herself about another figure in her life (though, honestly, it would really have helped if dad had told her everything -- or at least more -- about what he was aware of from the start (indeed, what initiated the start, so to speak, of sending her away). And, yes, the mystery of who or what is behind Abigail is ultimately also revealed.
       Abigail is then quite exciting -- if also a bit simple in how the final adventures unfold. At times, it feels more like a young adult novel -- oddly, not so much when focused on school- and girl-life, which Szabó presents with mature confidence, but rather in the danger-and-adventure episodes. There's some wavering in the narrative too -- some odd occasional glimpses ahead (we learn that, years later, Gina will have married and have children, and several times Szabó mentions that Gina will reflect on these events years in the future -- as if she felt it necessary to reässure readers that they don't have to worry: whatever happens, Gina will survive), as well as late-in-the-day filling in of the past (specifically regarding what-the-General-knew) -- which is all a bit awkward, suggesting just a bit of uncertainty on Szabó's part about how to handle some of this material. So, too, the background of the political situation feels somewhat simply handled: the Matula is well presented as an almost-but-not-quite island, but the presentation of the menace of both the Hungarian regime and then the German threat seems somewhat simplistic. (Of course, Szabó's original Hungarian audience was all too familiar with the background and what happened in those times -- though one might have thought that this would allow Szabó to take a much subtler approach (which she does in part, but doesn't sustain)). Typical, in this regard, is also the figure of the General, which she doesn't quite know what to do with -- basically handling (basically dismissing ...) him easily and entirely off-scene.
       Abigail is certainly a good and even exciting read, though the adventure-suspense feels rather simplistically cinematic as it unfolds -- perhaps all the more so noticeably because Szabó shows a much lighter and defter touch with so much else. One can understand why this is Szabó's most popular novel; Abigail is a very good 'popular novel' -- if falling just a bit short of the literature she also shows herself capable of.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 January 2020

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Links:

Abigail: Reviews: Szabó Magda: Other books by Szabó Magda under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Popular Hungarian author Szabó Magda lived 1917 to 2007.

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© 2020 the complete review

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