Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
Culture

Austin Ratner Returns With Sophomore Novel ‘In the Land of the Living’

● In the Land of the living
By Austin Ratner
Reagan Arthur Books, 320 pages, $25.99.

In Austin Ratner’s accomplished and moving second novel, “In the Land of the Living,” three generations of Auberon men have been angry.

Erratic and volatile, Isidore’s father raises him with techniques “he’d presumably learned at the Kishinev School of Cossack Child Rearing” — chiefly, bellowing abuse and wielding heavy objects. Isidore himself is not above hurling missiles, and his violent hatred for his father forms the driving passion of his life until his own sons, Leo and Mack, are born, and he finds happiness with his young family. But only briefly. The boys are just 3 and 1, respectively, when Isidore dies.

Parents here cannot be trusted to stay alive for very long. Sons are left to love their parents only through relics: Isidore treasures his mother’s lavender silk blouse; Leo, considerably more ambivalent, keeps Isidore’s inscribed medical textbook and then becomes a doctor himself. At its core, this novel is a study of bereavement and anger and of the complex, shifting seam between them. Anger, contemporary psychologists would have us believe, is merely a brief way station between bereavement and acceptance, but Ratner’s characters understand that it is rarely quite so simple. Leo, who worshipped his father, is ragingly, unquenchably angry deep into adulthood: “Leo wanted to hit [his brother] again and to hit the men who cut the trees down and to hit the stumps for being dead and to hit himself for using dead trees to write on and eating pigs he didn’t have the courage to kill himself and for hitting his brother like a savage and he wished they would just terraform Mars already so everyone could just start over.”

Between these vivid frenzies are flashbacks that introduce a tender, vulnerable voice. In these, Ratner captures 3-year-old Leo with uncanny precision, and his childhood sorrow is convincing and devastating. Leo worries about whether air or food can get to his father: “Don’t worry, Daddy. The others have forgotten, but I will bring you my macaroni and cheese. I didn’t eat all of it. I will save it where no one will find it, behind the bed….”

Ratner won the Sami Rohr Prize for his debut novel, “The Jump Artist,” and his sophomore novel will undoubtedly draw many more accolades. “In the Land of the Living” is sad and clever, resonant with loss and grief.

Francesca Segal is the 2012 winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for her novel “The Innocents” (Hyperion/Voice).

Engage

  • Events

    Vegas, It Isn’t: How Israeli Elections Sent Shockwaves through the Israel-Diaspora Relationship

    OFJCC Campus in Palo Alto, CA

    Dec 11, 2022

    5 pm ET · 

    Do the recent Israeli elections have an impact on the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry? Bear witness as rock stars of Israeli policy come together for a frank conversation about the Israeli elections as seen from the vantage points of statecraft, diplomacy, academia and politics.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.