Book review: Katalin Street by Magda Szabó

‘But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgment or tranquility. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.’⁣

‘They had discovered too that the difference between the living and the dead is merely qualitative, that it doesn’t count for much. And they had learned that in everyone’s life there is only one person whose name can be cried out in the moment of death.’⁣

In this wonderful book by Magda Szabó we look into the lives of three families in pre-war Budapest. The story starts in 1934 and continues until 1968. The families live next to each other in houses where they have a beautiful view of the Danube. The Biro family, the Elekeses, and the Held. The children of these families become close to each other, just like their parents.

Henriette Held is the youngest and the timidest. Irén Elekes is the dark-haired girl who is the dutiful daughter who always looks after her scatterbrained little sister, Blanka. Bálint is the oldest of them all, the promising son of the Biro family.

Their harmonious lives are torn apart in 1944 by the German occupation. Helds family, who are Jewish, are in danger. The two families promise to protect the Held. However, on Irén and Bálint’s engagement day, Mr and Mrs Held are taken away. Henriette, who at the time is 16 years old, is left behind and she stayed under the two families protection, hidden away in the attic of Biro family.

However, Henriette is killed.

Since then, the lives of the Elekeses and the Biros changed. They are struggling to come to term with social and political change, personal loss, and the guilt over the fate of the Held family. They grew apart and even though they try to open a new chapter in their lives after the war ends, new family, new house, new jobs, they find themselves drawn back to each other.

After her murder, Henriette often comes to the human world and watches the lives of the people she loves and them getting older. It’s sad but an interesting point of view as well. Henriette sees Blanka’s life after she escaped Budapest, sees Irén’s going through her marriage with a man she never truly loves, sees Bálint and how her death has changed him.

Katalin Street is a beautiful book that captures an important part of the history of Hungary in such a heartbreaking way. The readers are made to see how the characters love each other, yet they are also bad for each other in a way a toxic relationship is bad for you. I really enjoy how domestic lives are told in the story. How simple and happy their lives were and how after each decade it is slowly deteriorating into a future none of them could have imagined. Magda Szabó shows us how great she is in illustrating complex relationship in such simple ways that each character’s action is just so convincing albeit unusual.

Image result for katalin street nyrb classics

This edition of Katalin Street is published by New York Review Books.

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