It happens to the best of us. Everyone means to make a phone call, send a card, take the time to visit, but life gets in the way. Best case scenario, you make it up to that person some other way. Worst case? He or she dies. Slava Gelman learns this the hard way in Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. The book opens with an early morning phone call letting Slava know his grandmother had died. Slav and his grandmother had a special relationship. Like many grandmothers, she would do anything for her grandson “cucumber” as she called him. After learning of her death, Slav feels he let her down — and himself.
His grandmother lived through the Holocaust, but Slav never spoke to her about it. Her memories of the Second World War died with her, since she didn’t speak about her time with anyone, not even her husband. Days before Slav’s grandmother’s death, she received a letter letting her know she was eligible for reparations from the German government. Of course, it came too late, but Slav’s grandfather feels that justice needs to be served, and so he asks Slav, a journalist, to write a letter for his grandmother. Playing into Slav’s guilt of not being a “good” grandson, Slav acquiesces and writes an embellished account of his grandmother’s story with the little details he knows.
And the letter writing doesn’t stop there. His grandfather, a bit of a con-man, starts selling Slav’s services and enlists him to write reparation letters for his friends. What started out as a favor for his mourning grandfather turns Slav into a fraud, writing letters all over south Brooklyn and making up stories based on crumbs of information. It all starts to get the better of him as he stays awake at night researching the atrocities of World War II and forging. At first he’s bothered by his lies, Slav later enjoys the time he spends writing, seeing it as a way to connect with his grandmother.
Of course, Slav must continue with his day-to-day life as a fledgling reporter at a magazine and try to juggle two new love interests, Arianna and Lena. His lovers act as foils to one another. Arianna, his fact-checking co-worker, sees life in terms of black-and-white, while Lena has ties to his family and his old neighborhood. Lena believes that family comes first and that Slav should do what he can for the community. Arianna instead feels that Slav is being deceitful. It’s not exactly the angel and the devil on Slav’s shoulders, but it’s close enough.
But all good things must come to an end, which in Slav’s case is the accusation of forging letters from the Conference of Material Claims, the department granting the reparations. Slav must decide if he should come clean or protect the people he’s forged for.
It feels odd to say that a story about Slavic survivors of the Holocaust and pogroms and ghettos can be at times light-hearted, even warm and funny. But the way that Fishman delves into family — and the sometimes outlandish dynamics that create these bonds — keeps the story from being too heavy. Like the time the family is leaving Slav’s grandmother’s funeral and his mother turns to Slav with the anger and disappointment in her eyes about not being a better grandson before becoming a weeping mess who needs Slav to console her. It’s honest and realistic while providing quiet humor to a sad moment. As Fishman invites us into a family we want to be part of, he makes us want to turn the pages faster than we can.
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