'A Replacement Life': A serious, funny novel about war

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“A Replacement Life,” the debut novel from Boris Fishman, is many stories in one. It’s the story of Slava Gelman, a young, struggling writer born to a Russian Jewish family in New York, who believes that in order to become successful he must distance himself from his family.

It’s a love story, as Slava is torn between Arianna, his American colleague who knows him as a writer, and Vera, the beautiful family friend who knows his history.

But at its core “A Replacement Life” is a novel about suffering and truth — and how tragedy bleeds the line between fact and fiction.

The year is 2006, and Slava’s grandfather asks for his help in writing a narrative to qualify for Holocaust restitution payments — never mind the fact that his grandfather was evacuated to Uzbekistan during the war.

“Look. It says: ‘Ghettos, forced labor, concentrations camps … What did the subject suffer between 1939 and 1945?’ The subject. Not you. You didn’t suffer.”

“I didn’t suffer?” Grandfather’s eyes sparkled.

His brother was killed and buried in a mass grave in Latvia. His father returned from the war a broken man. Scores of loved ones, family friends, neighbors, were killed.

“Do you know what we came back to after the war? Tomatoes the size of your head. They’d fertilized them with human ash. You follow?”

Slava agrees to write a fictional narrative for his grandfather, and soon finds himself writing essays for neighbors and family friends, too. When his work raises the suspicions of the German government, Slava is forced to consider his loyalties.

This all makes “A Replacement Life” sound like a very serious novel, and it is. But it also is wickedly funny, as Fishman expertly captures the sharp banter between family members.

And while the opening section is dense, and Fishman does includes some rather long digs at Slava’s employer, a magazine very much like the New Yorker, these digressions smooth out and make way for a novel that is as touching, funny and complicated as life itself.

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