Strangers in Budapest

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

In the open­ing para­graphs of this moody and cap­ti­vat­ing nov­el, Annie, an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Budapest, looks down at the Danube Riv­er. She prefers to call it by its Hun­gar­i­an name — Duna — the sound of the word light on her tongue, fan­ci­ful and upbeat, a spir­it ris­ing.” But Annie’s Budapest is a place full of ghosts, and, like every­thing else in in the city, the riv­er that glit­tered at night con­cealed a dark­er sur­face under the day’s harsh sun.”

Much in this sto­ry, it turns out, is con­cealed under the sur­face — though all will be revealed in time. The nov­el con­cerns a young Amer­i­can fam­i­ly a long way from home and adrift in the per­plex­ing east­ern Euro­pean cap­i­tal. It is 1995, only a few years after the end of Com­mu­nism, and Budapest is the newest dar­ling of cap­i­tal­ism in the West­ern world.” Annie’s hus­band, Will, is there for the poten­tial entre­pre­neur­ial oppor­tu­ni­ties: shak­ing off forty years of Russ­ian occu­pa­tion (the last troops only left in 1991), new­ly-inde­pen­dent Hun­gary is open­ing itself up to any and all kinds of for­eign invest­ments. Every­one is talk­ing about huge amounts of mon­ey, though it’s unclear if any­thing is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing, or if it’s all just talk. Will takes meet­ings with poten­tial clients and busi­ness part­ners, small-town may­ors and mid­dle-men, but so far, noth­ing has mate­ri­al­ized. But the Hun­gar­i­ans, Annie notes, weren’t easy in busi­ness. They took their time — time that Amer­i­cans couldn’t fathom.”

Annie, for her part, is unful­filled and increas­ing­ly frus­trat­ed after eight months in the city. She is also search­ing for some­thing, though she’s not sure exact­ly what: A new life? A fresh start? She cares for her recent­ly-adopt­ed four-month-old, Leo; she flirts with the idea of work­ing with Budapest’s Gyp­sy com­mu­ni­ty; she attempts friend­ships with locals as well as expats, but finds one group as impen­e­tra­ble as the other.

When a let­ter arrives from a neigh­bor back in Boston ask­ing Annie and Will to check in on a friend, Annie’s life begins to take a series of increas­ing­ly murky turns. The friend is Edward Weiss, an elder­ly, bro­ken Amer­i­can liv­ing alone in Budapest under some­what secre­tive cir­cum­stances . Annie is drawn to Edward almost imme­di­ate­ly and the con­ver­sa­tions between the two pro­vide the book with some of its most hon­est, bru­tal scenes.

As the mys­tery sur­round­ing Edward unfolds, Annie is pulled deep­er and deep­er below that glit­ter­ing sur­face. Past events — from the lib­er­a­tion of the con­cen­tra­tion camps after World War II, to the Hun­gar­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion of 1956, to more per­son­al tragedies — haunt all of the char­ac­ters in this nov­el in dif­fer­ent ways, and Keen­er does an excel­lent job of tying these threads togeth­er into an emo­tion­al, unpre­dictable, and often riv­et­ing story.

Most impres­sive, how­ev­er, is Keener’s Budapest, a rough-edged, dark­ly beau­ti­ful city rush­ing into the future. It makes for an ide­al place in which to explore themes of loss, love, and the courage required to come to terms with the past — courage that was easy to pon­der as long as you didn’t have to do any­thing about it,” Annie thinks at one point. But in order to leave the past behind, Keen­er seems to sug­gest, one must be pre­pared to con­front it head-on.

Jonathan Arlan is a writer and edi­tor cur­rent­ly based in Kansas City. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished trav­el mem­oir Moun­tain Lines: A Jour­ney through the French Alps.

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