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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Slaughterman's Daughter

Yaniv Iczkovits

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Title: The Slaughterman's Daughter
Author: Yaniv Iczkovits
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 515 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The Slaughterman's Daughter - US
The Slaughterman's Daughter - UK
The Slaughterman's Daughter - Canada
  • Hebrew title: תיקון אחר חצות
  • Translated by Orr Scharf

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing little story, effectively told on a grand scale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/2/2021 Shay K. Azoulay
Sunday Times . 1/3/2020 Nick Rennison
TLS . 13/3/2020 Elaine Margolin
Wall St. Journal . 19/2/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) sprawling 19th-century tale filled with violence, ancillary subplots and historical tidbits. (...) Fluently translated by Orr Scharf, The Slaughterman's Daughter exhibits some trappings of the picaresque novel, including a broad cast of supporting characters whose misadventures steer us away from the main narrative for a bit too long. Likewise, the plot suffers from an overreliance on coincidence; there are too many chance encounters, flukes and a statistically improbable number of uneducated orphans who become influential officers. Nevertheless, it's a genuine pleasure to see all of the different strands of the story come together in the final act." - Shay K. Azoulay, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Yaniv Iczkovits's brilliant, sweeping novel The Slaughterman's Daughter is set in tsarist Russia during the late nineteenth century, but it feels highly relevant and resonant today. It is filled with exquisitely drawn characters often seeking some sort of redemption that remains out of reach." - Elaine Margolin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Slaughterman's Daughter approaches history in a fabulist style reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem and his disciples. (...) The folktale tradition evoked in the storytelling has an estimable history, but perhaps even more old-fashioned is this novel's length and leisurely tempo. (...) I appreciated the pace, even if it sometimes made me antsy." - Sam Sacks, 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:

       The Slaughterman's Daughter is set in the Pale of Settlement -- the part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed residency --, almost entirely in what is modern-day Belarus. It is 1894, and many Jews are emigrating, to the United States, Germany, and Palestine; the story is set in motion by one husband and father who abandons his family -- albeit only venturing as far as Minsk.
       There are actually two slaughterman's daughters, the sisters Mende and Fanny. They grew up in Grodno, their mother dying when they were still young. While Mende did as was expected from her -- she was: "always courteous, avidly fulfilled the commandments, and made sure to appear gentle and modest before any man she encountered", her younger sister was more headstrong, with her own ideas. And, still just age ten, she announced she didn't want to learn to sew from the local tailor but rather learn her father's craft: "I want to learn how to use the knife".
       Consulting with the local rabbi, their father learns that there's no specific prohibition against a woman performing the ritual slaughter that is his trade, and so he takes her on as an apprentice. Fanny takes to it eagerly -- when her father gives her her own knife, she: "was thrilled and sharpened it regularly, and even asked Mende to sew her a rag doll on which she could practise". She shows a remarkable talent for the work and her skill turns out to be good for business, but she only follows through for a relatively brief time, ready then to take up a more tradition female role. Nevertheless, she holds onto her knife -- and: "Few people were as adept with the knife as she" -- and even as she settles down her childhood nickname, die vilde chaya -- 'the wild animal' --, is not forgotten.
       When the novel starts, both Mende and Fanny have families of their own. Mende married Zvi-Meir Speismann, a self-styled thinker with no sense for business; ten months earlier he had abandoned Mende and their two children for Minsk. Fanny is married to the cheese-maker, Nosson-Berl Keismann -- "the most successful sheep farmer in the entire district" --, fifteen years her senior; they have five children, the oldest now eight years old. Mende lives with her in-laws in Motal, while Fanny and her family live a few miles away from the bustle of the town.
       Zvi-Meir's abandonment of his family tore Mende's life to pieces, and she remains at loose ends. The occasion of her birthday leads her to go on a spree of sorts, treating herself to all sorts of goods she would otherwise never think of buying; she spends nearly her entire savings in a daze of consumption. When she realizes what she has done, she takes more drastic action, and attempts suicide.
       Fanny knows well what stability her sister craves -- "it is not Zvi-Meir that she is pining for; she yearns for the authority of a husband and for the life of a wife" -- and she is determined to set things right. Her plan is straightforward enough: "All she wanted to do was cross the Yasela and ride to Minsk, confront Zvi-Meir and make him sign a writ of divorce, there and then", but putting that into action is not that simple. She suggests to her husband that they could go to Minsk and seek out Zvi-Meir; they could even take the kids ..... But she soon sees that if anything is to happen, she'll have to take the initiative herself -- which she then does.
       Leaving just a note ("Take care of yourselves until I return"), she heads out one night. She does get support from the man who plies back and forth on the Yaselda, the mute Zizek who doesn't charge his passengers anything. It was Zizek that saved Mende from her suicide attempt, and he seems to understand what Fanny needs. He has a wagon and two horses at the ready, and sets off with her for Minsk.
       Zizek understands the dangers of such a trip, and has prepared everything as well as he could, but the dangers of the road almost immediately catch up with them. The bandits who accost them, however, have no idea who they are dealing with -- not so much Zizek, who they size up readily enough, but Fanny, who still carries her knife with her ..... In short order, Fanny and Zizek have much more to worry about than just the usual dangers of the road: the attempt to make the journey as inconspicuously as possible has failed, and now they have the authorities to worry about them, who are quickly hot on their trail.
       This brings several more significant characters into the story, beginning with Piotr Novak, whose promising military career was cut short by a terrible leg injury but who has found a new position he excels at, as district commander at the Department for Public Security and Order -- the Okhrana, the secret police. In the aftermath of Fanny and Zizek's confrontation with the bandits he notes that the distinctive knife-use: "sends a clear message: the Jews are responsible" -- and from this it's only a short leap to imagining some ideological motive, a whole plot to undermine the Empire. Novak makes it his mission to find those responsible -- a group that grows from the original duo to include the hapless Shleiml the Cantor, whom Fanny and Zizek pick up on the roadside, figuring he might provide them with an alibi, as well as innkeeper Patrick Adamsky, where the trio briefly seek refuge.
       The novel is soon a cat and mouse game, with Novak chasing this quartet. In fact, he tracks them down easily enough almost immediately -- but in trying to arrest them his underlings also fail to recognize who poses the greatest danger, and Fanny again shows her prowess with her knife; the four escape -- but now they are really wanted, and while Novak can't chase them down immediately, a large-scale effort to find them is soon underway.
       Zizek turned to Adamsky because there is a connection between the two. Both were victims of the Czar Nikolai the First's: "Cantonist Decree, by which he ordered the conscription of one righteous and innocent boy for every thousand Jews in the population". The community had to hand over a young boy, who was the forced to adapt to Russian ways and integrated into the army; almost all were also baptized and given new names: Zizek was originally Yoshke Berkovits, while Adamsky was Pesach Avramson. Adamsky ultimately fully embraced his new identity, becoming a successful officer -- and with a deep-seated loathing for the Jews who had sacrificed him years earlier. Zizek never got as completely on board -- and returned to Motal when he left the army, even if the community there could never embrace their lost son.
       Zizek -- always mute since his return to Motal -- does regain his voice on this odyssey, though he isn't forceful in using it. But his background does at least provide the fleeing quartet one place of refuge -- an army camp, as Zizek turns out to be a legendary figure, venerated by the soldiers. A whole section -- a novella within the novella -- then has one of those attached to the camp tell Zizek's remarkable story to Fanny.
       Repeatedly in The Slaughterman's Daughter contrasts the actions of the individual against those of the crowd -- and shows the failures of the masses. The betrayal of the young boys singled out in the community and sacrificed to the state are one example that haunts much of the story, but there are others -- beginning with Fanny, setting out on her own, basically, to set things right in her sister's life. The story of Zizek and all those he managed to save when he was in the military is another case of individual action and ingenuity being so much more effective than the usual military approach, of sending masses to slaughter. And finally, in the novel's climactic scene, Fanny looks out on the crowd in Motal and sees how easily it could rise up against the oppressors:

Now ! Now is the moment ! Her mind calls to the people. There are thirty policemen and maybe ten more agents but there are more than a thousand of you, dammit. No one budges.
       Indeed, when the climactic scene takes it's final dramatic turn, it's not this sea of a thousand or anyone from it that takes decisive action, but rather an individual who had already shown she takes after Fanny in going her own way in the days leading up to this.
       The cat and mouse game is surprisingly suspenseful, despite how stacked against Fanny and the others the deck is. Novak is very skilled, and while there are the occasional complications, often thanks to his eager but dim-witted deputy, it's basically just a question of tightening the noose, especially since Novak knows what Fanny's goal in Minsk is -- to find Zvi-Meir. But the adventures along the way, on both sides, are engaging, with Iczkovits lightening much of the story up with humor. (Some of this is a bit over the top, notably Shleiml the Cantor -- as well as then the gallows-humor of the finale, that is a bit very neatly tied up.)
       The rich characters and vivid descriptions of Jewish and army life in those times make for an engaging novel that takes its time in the telling, wending all about even as the main action only covers a few weeks. The personal histories of several of the characters, and how it weighs on them in the present, adds a nice dimension to the story, from the brilliant Novak's dedication to his work, complete with effective disguises, coupled with the distance to his own family, to how Zizek and Adamsky's childhood trauma still weighs on them. The strong women -- Fanny, most obviously, but, in their own ways, also Mende or, for example, Fanny's mother-in-law (who, for a while, thinks Fanny's disappearance might work out for the best, with her son and Mende making a much better couple ...) -- also impress.
       The community is guilty of several failures here, but ultimately mostly redeems itself; still, Iczkovits is more focused on the role and actions of the individual, which here prove much more significant and effective. Characters make difficult choices, and there are sacrifices along the way, but ultimately the choices are the right ones (if also, it must be noted, the characters are extraordinarily lucky in how things work out, pretty much every step of the way). Even Novak makes what might be considered unprofessional choices, but they are obviously the right ones (though his deputy would disagree); a nice touch is in the concluding chapter where Iczkovitsz presents not just the official report Novak submits to his superior but also imagines what the report would have said had he: "wanted to submit an honest report".
       The pervasive anti-Semitism of the times and place is convincingly presented -- and still shocking -- but here, as also with the violence, Iczkovitsz's use of humor helps balance it out; The Slaughterman's Daughter is -- almost surprisingly -- not really grim. If the ultimate outcome feels a bit too wishful-thinking neat, it fits with the overall feel of the novel.
       The painter who recounted Zizek's military heroics for Fanny concluded:
Please forget the fable that I have just told you, for it is nothing more than a fable. Any soldier here in the camp will tell you a completely different version of this story, depending on his imagination and how much time he has.
       The Slaughterman's Daughter has a similar fable-like feel -- but that's hardly a bad thing. All in all it's an enjoyable, big, meandering read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 March 2021

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The Slaughterman's Daughter: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Yaniv Iczkovitsz (יניב איצקוביץ) was born in 1975.

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© 2021 the complete review

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