The House of Widows

The House of Widows

4.0 1
by Askold Melnyczuk

A novel of intrigue that is played across decades, continents, and generations by the celebrated, New York Times Notable author of Ambassador of the Dead

Late one night, a week after Father's suicide, I finished sweeping the bulk of my inheritance into four giant trash bags, and heaved them into the Dumpster at the construction site around the corner from


A novel of intrigue that is played across decades, continents, and generations by the celebrated, New York Times Notable author of Ambassador of the Dead

Late one night, a week after Father's suicide, I finished sweeping the bulk of my inheritance into four giant trash bags, and heaved them into the Dumpster at the construction site around the corner from his apartment. Then I sat down at the two-person coffee table in the middle of his kitchen, the fluorescent light loud as cicadas, and examined the three
things I'd kept.

The three things that James kept are his father's British military uniform, an oversize glass jar, and a letter written in a language he can't read. They become the keys to unlocking the door on a past James never imagined while growing up amid the security of Boston's north shore, and they send him on an odyssey across England, Austria, and Ukraine. Along the way, he meets his dying aunt Vera, the matriarch of a mysterious branch of the family. His mission puts him face-to-face with the international sex trade, a displaced Palestinian girl with streaked pink hair and attitude to spare, and a violent world in which he is ultimately implicated. From old America, new Europe, and the timeless Middle East, James learns what it means to live in the webbed world of the twenty-first century.

In The House of Widows, Askold Melnyczuk offers a searing exploration of the individual's role in the inexorable assault of history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Melnyczuk's ambitious third novel is a soulful noir about the damaging effects of history on one man's psyche. Cynical historian James Pak lives in Vienna and is still deeply affected by his father Andrew's suicide 16 years ago, and his confessional narrative, told mostly in flashbacks, fills the reader in on why he's still reeling. Just after Andrew's death, James takes possession of three of his dead father's belongings (a letter written in an unfamiliar language, a glass jar and military identification papers) and sets out to exhume his father's past. His pilgrimage leads him from Boston to England, Austria and Ukraine, and entangles him with Andrew's childhood friend, Marian, and her charge, Selena, a Palestinian woman with a twisted backstory. James encounters a branch of his father's family he never knew existed, and as he discovers the significance of the jar and military papers and the contents of the letter, his family's hidden past comes into sharp focus. James is a strikingly observant and literate guide to a world full of unsavory characters and nearly devoid of joy. Melnyczuk (What Is Told; Ambassador of the Dead) doesn't let anyone-especially the reader-off easy. (Mar.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Complex personal and family histories are painstakingly disentangled in this elliptical yet engrossing novel from the Massachusetts-based author of Ambassador of the Dead (2001, etc.). The narrator, James Pak, a young civil servant and historian, branches out from his job with the U.S. Counsel of Public Affairs in Vienna when he "investigates" the suicide of his troubled father, Andrew, 16 years earlier. Andrew's roots in the Ukraine are traced during a succession of journeys and meetings, undertaken by James as he visits Andrew's childhood friend, Marian, in England, then moves eastward to track down his aged paternal grandmother, Vera, her world-weary, cynical son, Kij, and, eventually, another scion of Vera's blighted family, who knows what removed the deracinated Andrew from the orbit of those who should have loved and protected him. Personal testimony and flashbacks commingle bafflingly, as James approaches, recoils from and submits to agonizing realizations hitherto unforeseen. "The only peace of mind I've ever known has come from the process of giving a shape to the past," he tells himself. But the shape is that of a nightmare, as evidenced during a tense transcontinental train journey, a submissive vigil at the moribund Vera's bedside and the reception of a horrific "message" sent to the chastened Kij, from whom James learns the secret (the first of many) concealed in the novel's title. There's more embedded in three objects James "inherits": a letter written in an unknown language, Andrew's military papers and an oversized glass jar (it's Pandora's box, James discovers). In its brooding focus on the breakup of a corrupt old world infecting the one that succeeds it, Melnyczuk'shallucinatory tale achieves some of the fierce, distracting power of D.H. Lawrence's nerve-grating masterpiece Women in Love. Not an easy book to grapple with, but the reader's struggle will yield rewards. Agent: Lane Zachary/Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.75(d)

Meet the Author

Askold Melnyczuk is the director of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is the author of two other novels, What Is Told and Ambassador of the Dead. He also teaches in the Graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College.

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The House of Widows 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
James Pak is a smart guy-he's heading to Oxford and his qualifications are impeccable. He knows the facts of history, is well-educated in most fields, has a gentlemanly manner, is apparently good looking, and cash doesn't seem to be an issue. He seems to have it all together, except for the haunting questions about his father's suicide that nag at him in inopportune moments. His main problem seems to be that while he studies the facts of history, he doesn't understand the emotions that are interlinked with it. Unless one can ascertain both, they aren't prepared to deal with some of the ugly truths that surround them. In this novel, The House of Widows, we see James try to make sense of it all. He travels to one of his father's oldest friends, looking for answers. Much about her is veiled in mystery, and her strange brother and her adopted Palestinian daughter complicate James' understanding as well. He discovers that what he thought about his father was so wrong that it has to change how he thinks about himself. In fact, James plays the unreliable narrator to perfection. The novel travels throughout the world, with James on a quest for answers, yet ignorant to some of the solutions he carries with him. War is a repeating motif that underlines the emotional ties to history. They can't be separated and defined on a page. And the trouble that comes with searching for answers is realizing that the answers may be worse than your imagination. On top of that is the knowledge that in many cases, such as the Middle East (where portions of this book take place), there are no easy answers that are palatable to all. A few times my jaw dropped in shock at some of the revelations, and at other times I was a bit overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. It is may find it difficult to put down, which is probably for the best because it's easy to lose track of each character if you step away for long. Be prepared for surprises, and if you really want to appreciate it, have a map of Western Europe at hand. The only thing that mildly annoyed me about the book was some of the dialogue felt surreal-a bit unrealistic in the way seemingly ordinary people speak. Yet that too reveals part of the complexities of their emotional baggage.