David Bezmozgis’s first book, Natasha (2004), was a brilliant collection of short stories about a family of Latvian Jews in Canada. His new book – a sad comic novel set over five months in Italy in 1978 – is less successful. It follows the Krasnanskys, Latvian Jews waiting to be accepted by Canada as emigrants from the Soviet Union. In the opening pages, which take place in a railway station in Vienna, they struggle to load twenty items of luggage onto the Rome train while 26-year-old Alec chats up two American students in cut-off jeans. This sets the tone: his wife Polina, his older brother Karl – a former bodybuilder who gets caught up in some shady dealing – and their father Samuil, a retired factory boss whose brother was killed by the Nazis, all play second fiddle to Alec’s philandering, on which the novel’s climax depends.
Among the challenges that Bezmozgis sets himself here is to write well about waiting. It’s not easy, and his strategy of relying on the Krasnanskys’ memories of life back in the USSR requires fluency and elegance. The short scenes of half a dozen or so pages tend to