Irene Dische, whose new novel is a Book Sense Notable Title this month, is a delightfully odd figure, both in her storytelling strategies and in her personal (and publishing) history.
Sometimes, in American publishing, brilliant writers go missing in action.
If you want to read the past several books by J.G. Ballard (“Empire of the Sun”), you have to send to England for them. The same goes for Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri (“The Famished Road”).
And then there’s the strange case of Irene Dische.
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“Irene who?” you ask.
Dische, whose new novel is a Book Sense Notable Title this month, is a delightfully odd figure, both in her storytelling strategies and in her personal (and publishing) history. Born in 1952 and raised in a German-speaking household in a German-Jewish neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, she first heard English at age 4. A reckless sense of adventure led to her running away at age 15, stranding herself in Col. Qaddafi’s Libya at 17, and working for Dr. Louis Leakey in Kenya at age 18 (“He had great respect for high-school dropouts,” she has said.)
Eventually she moved to Germany, where her career as a writer got started — in German. Since then, all her books have been published in German first, appearing in English a year or two later — in the U.K., if not the U.S.
What makes Dische so distinctive is her antic exuberance, despite the often touchy topics she tackles. “The Empress of Weehawken,” her new book — an adrenaline-shot of a novel — addresses her family’s history, starting with her grandparents: Catholic grandmother Elisabeth, who narrates, and Jewish grandfather Carl, a doctor who converted to Catholicism.
When Elisabeth, Carl and their daughter Renate fall afoul of Hitler’s regime, they make a dash for “the less civilized world” of New Jersey, where they reinvent their lives just as World War II breaks out. Renate follows in her father’s footsteps after a fashion, becoming deputy medical examiner of New York City. She also marries twice and has two children: the rambunctious Irene and the quieter Carl Jr.
The book spurts forward through one family tiff and tribulation after another. But “The Empress of Weehawken,” Dische’s first book to appear here in a decade, is only secondarily about plot.
Instead it’s a showcase for voice: the voice of Elisabeth, the “Empress” of the title and a glorious comic creation. Certain that every year she lives is going to be her “death year,” she manages to live to a ripe old age and beyond (hence her omniscience). She prays devoutly and frequently, even while acknowledging that God rarely answers her. But answers, she insists, are not the point: “Prayer is beneficial mostly for the clarity it bestows. Pray, and you know what you want.”
“The Empress of Weehawken” is sharp as razors on the gradual entrapment of Jews in Germany. It’s a classic immigration tale about a family’s “precarious union with America.” It’s also a wrong-end-of-the-telescope coming-of-age story, with author Dische having great fun at her own expense. (“We all believe that one day we’ll be hearing from Irene,” one headmistress tells her family. “But we don’t know in which capacity.”)
Elisabeth’s storytelling method is, granted, a little chaotic. She’ll flash-forward to her disapproval of granddaughter Irene’s hippie-era high jinks or to daughter Renate’s repetition of her own most “glaring” mistake (marrying a Jew), only to pull back abruptly with “More about this later. Much more.” But her sheer liveliness on the page makes all her digressions and self-contradictions more than palatable.
My only quibble about “Empress” has nothing to do with the book itself. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in packaging of the novel, has repressed all mention of Dische’s earlier works or the fact that “Empress” was first published in Germany two years ago.
It’s dispiriting to think that readers discovering Dische through “Empress” may miss the fact that she has four earlier books (not counting children’s books) to her credit, rich with same fierce humor. After all, with cyber-bookstores just a mouse-click away, it’s easy to track down any book that’s been published anywhere.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.