Jessica Keener (Night Swim) writes about post-communist Hungary with the heart and specificity of someone who’s lived it. Her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, is inspired by the time she spent in the country’s capital city in the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union opened up new commercial possibilities while also forcing a reckoning with its ugly past. Will and Annie, an American couple with an adopted baby, have been living in the city for eight months as the book opens, trying but struggling to adjust to their adventurous new life. Budapest is still ravaged by the effects of communism — limited modes of communication, acute mistrust of visitors, the innumerable ghosts of the Holocaust littered across its landscape — and Annie, particularly, feels adrift. She’s eager to find meaning there while her husband explores business opportunities, and is committed to immersing herself in the culture.
Keener, who like Annie moved to Budapest with her husband and infant son, is stylistically straightforward and generous with backstory. In the novel, she’s driven to explore what drew people to the city — maybe, what even drew her there. Annie, we learn, has a traumatic family history that’s easier escaped than dealt with; the same can be said for Edward Weiss, the Jewish World War II veteran she meets under mysterious circumstances. Keener wants us to know who these people are. Unflashy as it may seem, her writing sparkles when she alternates between detailing her characters’ motivations and describing their new home in all of its volatile, foreign, scaldingly hot charm. She demonstrates a masterly touch in the way she drops dashes of bleak Hungarian history into marital squabbles, family meals, and morning jogs.
The familiar, even obvious rhythms of Strangers in Budapest mostly work to its benefit. Keener’s prose occasionally meanders, as reminders of Annie’s state-of-mind turn redundant and the Budapest sun’s overpowering heat is relentlessly emphasized, but it always clicks back into place, fusing emotion to setting and past to present with cutting brevity. As the novel progresses, its focus tightens, with stories of the dead and oblique warnings of the soon-to-be-dead jointly creating a haunting atmosphere. This is not a thriller so much as a steady march toward tragedy. Well-executed — if convenient — twists keep the pages turning fast.
Annie and Edward, our primary Strangers who eventually embark on a perilous mission together, are sketched out with omniscience, the distance between how much we know of them and how much we can connect to them deliberately wide. They surprise each other with their candor, if only because they’re typically secretive and repressed. They’re bonded by trauma — trauma which they share with a city experiencing a most tumultuous moment of transition. Strangers in Budapest doesn’t exoticize or patronize its location; rather, in a rare achievement for an American novel of this international emphasis, it revels in the complexity of its appeal. The more we learn about the city — the more we travel its roads, wander its stuffy apartment buildings, admire its parks and rivers — the more mournfully satisfying the book becomes. We come to understand why these characters are drawn to Budapest. We see why they’re drawn to the dead. B+