Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist
“A pleasure to read from beginning to end.” —Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March
Esther, an American art conservator, has fled New York for London—partly to escape her failing marriage, partly to tend to her dying mother. On her first night there, she spots a young man returning home very late, wet and muddy, to the house next door. Their eyes connect and he disappears inside.
This first encounter sparks Esther’s curiosity about her new neighbors: Amir, the moody college student she caught sneaking in, and, more intruiguing still, Amir’s father, Javad—a neuroscientist from Iran.
Throughout the spring, a tentative friendship blossoms, but when terrorists attack London’s tube and bus lines in July, Esther finds her relationship with Javad strained by her gnawing suspicions about Amir . . . suspicions that will ultimately upend the possibilities for the future, and reveal the deep stamp of the past.
Sweeping, suspenseful, and exquisitely written, Underground Fugue is a powerful testament to how human connection can survive history’s most fearsome echoes.
|Melville House Publishing
|Penguin Random House Publisher Services
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Underground Fugue ESTHER
The plane descends toward Heathrow on a cold, gray April morning. It is just past 6:00 a.m. in London and Esther has traveled through the night, shed five hours of it over the Atlantic, and now her eyes feel loosened in their sockets and her feet are swollen and everything is vibrating with fatigue. She rests her forehead against the window. Square green fields bisected by hedgerows, snaking subdivisions of redbrick houses, rain-wet motorways, tiny cars. The landing gear whirrs. The flaps adjust.
She folds her arms across her chest, crosses her fingers, tucks her thumbs into her palms for luck. A useless superstition. The man seated beside her doesn’t seem to notice. He is an American, a petroleum engineer, he told her back in the friendly moments at the beginning of the flight before he fell asleep. He’s on his way to a rig in the North Sea. Something to do with pressure control valve design. Hated traveling, he told her. Didn’t like to be away from his wife and kids. He barely fits into the coach class seat, overlapping its borders like an adult wedged into a child’s chair on parents’ night at school. He fell asleep quickly, the dinner trays not yet cleared away, the cabin still abuzz. At one point in the night his head lolled onto her shoulder, heavy as a melon, trusting as a sleeping child in the strange intimacy of strangers on transatlantic flights.
Esther used to love to fly. She loved the promise of the city names clicking over on the departure boards, the way the syllables turned over on her tongue: Dar es Salaam, Helsinki, Riyadh, La Paz, Berlin. She loved the weightless lift of takeoff, the earth dropping away and spreading out below, the bunting of clouds, the sun appearing like a gift. She misses it, that lightness she once felt at thirty-six thousand feet, the substance of her life below as unreal as the vanished earth beneath the strange cloud sea. But now she knows she’d mistaken the illusion of lightness for possibility. She’d thought that if you kept moving forward, you could leave the past behind.
Rain spatters against the windows. They are low now, nearly there, the squat terminal buildings and hangars stretching larger, into scale. The blue blink of runway lights. Then the thump of the wheels on tarmac, the chest-slam of the reverse-engine thrust. She uncrosses her fingers and arms. On the ground now, the jet lumbers, awkward on its little wheels.
The engineer bends and lifts his duffle bag onto his lap. He has to catch a connection to Aberdeen, he has told her, then hop a helicopter to the rig. She’s seen pictures of those wave-battered platforms, those men in orange coveralls, the men who kept the oil pumping, the oil that wars were fought for, that viscous bloodline deep beneath the sea.
The engineer turns to her and nods. “Good luck,” he says.
Esther has come to London because her mother is dying, her death a matter of time—of weeks or months—not luck. Her mother is eighty-three and has lived her life, Esther knows, but still the word dying drops inside her like a stone. Since she was last in London, Esther has lost her son, quit her job, left her husband. The world has changed. One by one, the moorings have been cut free.
The jet jolts to a stop at the gate. The cabin lights blink on, and then everyone is standing, pushing into the aisles, reaching overhead for coats and bags, pressing toward the doors.
Esther takes a taxi to her mother’s house, a semidetached Georgian on a quiet street just off Finchley Road. The two halves of the house are mirror images of one another. Parallel front steps lead to side-by-side blue doors. Matching windows align beneath the eaves. In back, twin gardens share a wisteria-covered wall. The right side is her mother’s. The Last Resort, Esther dubbed it years ago, a little joke that stuck. She presses the bell and waits.
A woman Esther has never seen before comes to the door. For a moment, the familiar shifts. The woman has a wide moon-face, blond hair pulled back tight.
Esther takes a half step back. “Oh, I thought—my mother—is she—?”
“I fetch her. A moment, please,” the woman says. She has an accent—Eastern European, perhaps. She is wearing a blue smock with white trim around the sleeves and collar; an ID badge hangs on a lanyard around her neck. The district nurse—of course.
Esther lugs her bags over the threshold. The house smells of mildew and furniture polish, same as always. She steps into the sitting room. There is the sofa with the crocheted afghan folded over the back, the green-tiled hearth, the mantel clock, the vitrine crammed with china teacups and figurines, the piano, the Persian carpet worn in spots to threads. Through the doors at the far end of the room, she can see the branches of the weeping mulberry swaying in the breeze. A gray cat is crouching on the garden wall. Weathered brick, slate-tiled rooftops knobby with chimney pots. A green scrim of trees.
She turns and her mother is there. She is wearing a cable-knit cardigan and slacks, pearls glinting at her neck. Her thinning white hair has been brushed and set. She approaches slowly, her shoulders bent. She smiles, holds out her arms.
She looks the same, Esther thinks as they embrace. She looks the same, although she feels smaller and more fragile than Esther expected, or remembered. Loose skin over jutting bones. She is shrinking, in old age, in illness, consolidating into herself. But she smells the same—a powdery scent. You wouldn’t suspect those unstoppable cells—malignant, metastatic—dividing, multiplying, spreading through her blood and lymph.
In the kitchen, the radio is on, the familiar descant of the BBC news. Her mother fills the kettle, shakes a few biscuits onto a plate. Esther leans against the counter. She could be twenty-two again, she thinks, back for a quick obligatory visit, the rest of her life not yet even the nucleus of an idea. Somehow, inside, she is that person still.
“Mum, sit. Let me do that.”
“Nonsense.” Her mother sets out a cup and saucer, sugar, cream. The newsreader drones on. “They’re burying Pope John Paul today,” her mother says. She spoons coffee from a canister into a French press. Her hand shakes, a little spills. “Do you know, the Poles wanted the Vatican to send his heart to Kraków, to be buried there?”
Krack-uff, her mother pronounces it. She was born just fifty miles from Kraków, across the former Czechoslovak border in Moravská Ostrava—Mährisch Ostrau when it was part of Austria-Hungary, Ostrava in the Czech Republic now. Another world. Her mother would be about the same age as Karol Wojtyła, the departed Pope.
“Just his heart?”
Her mother’s lips twist into her old ironic smile. She waves her hand. “Cut it out and send it here, they said.”
“Quite. In any case, the Church refused. He is to be buried in one piece, in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s, in Rome.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Her father was buried in the Jewish cemetery up in Willesden. Noah was buried out in Queens. Esther tries to picture the Pope lying in state in his polished casket: the red robe, the peaked hat, his dead face gray, his stilled heart thick with congealed blood inside his chest. She does not want to, cannot, imagine her mother dead. She wonders if her mother envies the Catholics their faith in heaven and the eternal life of the repentant soul. She wonders if she’s afraid. She’s failing, the doctors said, as if life were an exam.
Her mother sets the French press onto the table and pushes down the plunger. “He was a good man, the Pope. Now come and sit.”
By good man, Esther knows, she means, good for the Jews. She can’t recall what this Polish pope did to earn that praise.
In the other room, the mantel clock sounds its noonday chime. The newsreader murmurs on the radio. Her mother pours the coffee. There is comfort in the surfaces of things, here at the still point of the morning—in the stained wood of the tabletop, the growl of the refrigerator, the old pots and pans hanging from their hooks, the flat gray English April light.
It’s 2:47 a.m. Esther fell asleep early, but now she’s wide awake. She can hear her mother moving—the mattress creaking, the toilet whooshing, the water gurgling through the pipes—and wonders if she’s in pain. Surely they’ve given her some meds to help her sleep? Esther should have asked. She’s supposed to be here to help. Everything is always worse at night, her mother used to say when Esther was little, stroking her hair with cool fingers, pulling up the covers, tucking them back in. But now her mother is dying and Esther is alone in this familiar, unfamiliar place where the pillow is too soft and the duvet is too hot and the old mattress dips into a rut and the alarm clock on the bedside table has a too-loud tick.
She gets up, pulls on her dressing gown and slippers, and tiptoes downstairs. The house is webbed in shadow, blue and cold and still. She pulls on her raincoat over her robe and fishes a pack of cigarettes out of her purse. She eases open the front door and sits down on the top step, wrapping her coat around her legs.
The parked cars and dark houses across the street float in shadow. The streetlamp emits a faint, high-pitched buzz. A siren sounds in the distance, not the old nee-nah but an American-style wail. It is cold. She pulls a cigarette out of the pack, flips the lighter. She guesses it is a very un-English thing to smoke out on the street in the middle of the night with a coat over your nightgown like a bum. But there is no one around to see. The tip of the cigarette flares orange in the dark.
Sometimes, in New York, she used to go up onto the roof of their building on nights she couldn’t sleep. The tarpaper roof was flat and bare. There were just a couple of sooty planters of bamboo and a few weathered folding chairs. From there, twelve stories above the Upper West Side, she could make out the dark slash of the Hudson, the red and white streams of taillights flowing south along Columbus, the blank gap of the park. Beyond floated the sodium vapor galaxies of the East Side, Brooklyn, and Queens, a vast, sparkling net of lights.
In Noah’s room, the ceiling glowed with constellations they’d stuck up there when he was little, a yellow-green array of plastic stars. His shelves were still lined with his model airplanes, propped on angled stands: B-52 bombers and F-16 fighter jets, a Sopwith Camel and a Gulfstream and a spindle-nosed Concorde. She and Gil had bought the model kits for him, helped him with the early snap-together versions, then just stood by and watched as he hunched over the tiny plastic parts of the more complicated models, surrounded by little bottles of glue and jars of colored paint. It didn’t seem possible that this boy who spilled the cereal and tracked mud onto the living room carpet and didn’t seem to care or even notice whether his shirt was on backward or inside out could manage such painstaking work. He’d painted the F-16 in jungle camouflage. The Sopwith Camel had targets like a moth’s eyes stenciled on its wings.
On the wall above his bed, Noah had taped a photograph of a jet plane flying above two swirling vortices of cloud. The plane was a thin black boomerang above twin spiral curls, undulating striations of gray and white. It looked almost as if the plane were flying into a tunnel. It was wake turbulence, Noah had explained, waves of air created by the wingtip during lift. The clouds looked to Esther like a strange sea, each vortex the scroll of an Ionic column, or an enormous waterspout. The image was beautiful and terrifying. It seemed as if the plane had lost its way, had crossed into another dimension of time and space.
She doesn’t hear the footsteps, doesn’t see the figure approaching until he is nearly in front of her, climbing the steps next door. A man. A young man. She draws back into the recess of the doorframe, rubs out her cigarette. Her heart stutters. It is very dark. She hopes he hasn’t seen her. She pulls in her legs and holds her breath.
In the dim illumination of the streetlamp, like a freeze-frame caught in a camera’s flash, she registers disjoined details: a black knit cap pulled low, dark hair curling underneath, a black hoodie, wet and muddy boots. An older couple lived next door, or used to. They had no kids. Who was this, then? Panic flushes through her limbs. Jesus. He was breaking in.
He pauses before the door and swings his backpack off one shoulder, turning toward the light. And as he turns, he looks up for just a second, and their eyes connect. His eyes are what she will always remember. She knows them intimately, even though she has never seen this boy before. They are the eyes of a Byzantine icon: large and heavy lidded, nearly black, intense.
She cannot move. There is a pounding in her head. She is aware of him taking in her bare shins and slippers, the light blue satin of her dressing gown sticking out beneath her coat. She is aware that he is aware that she is looking back at him.
Then he is reaching into the backpack, stepping closer to the door, keys jingling in his hand.
She lets out her breath.
Just sneaking in.
And then he is pulling the door open and stepping inside and the door thumps shut behind him and the London night settles once again around her, strange and cold and dark.