Early in the book, A Fist Around the Heart, the reader is informed of the death of a Jewish woman in Winnipeg named Esther Kinnear. Police notify Esther’s sister, Anna Grieve, of her death launching the book’s key narrative.
Anna, who lives in Manhattan, travels back to Winnipeg to settle her late sister’s estate and to help solve the distressing mystery of Esther’s death. The question of whether Esther took her own life is the central preoccupation of the story.
Anna’s melancholy journey back to her former home sets in motion a cascade of discrete but interconnected reminiscences, through a myriad of converging memories. Anna searches for explanations to the tragedy of Esther’s demise, but cannot easily find any. Without intending to, she looks to the past, to her shared history with her sister. The effective use of flashbacks is one of the compelling features of the novel.
Author Heather Chisvin deftly leads the reader on double-tiered, past-and-present literary paths that, thankfully, meet at the end of the story. She smartly provides telling clues and other indirect references to the information Anna seeks, without intruding upon the evolving drama of her search. This is one of the novel’s strengths. Chisvin holds onto, and prolongs, the mystery until the very end.
The sisters were born in Russia during the period of the vicious anti-Jewish pogroms of the 1880s. Violence surrounds the Grieve family in their shtetl, Podensk. Conditions are so fraught with danger that the girls’ mother sends them out of the country with friends of the family – an exceptionally caring, generous and thoughtful non-Jewish couple – who are moving to Winnipeg.
It soon becomes clear that the young girls’ departure from Russia and the circumstances immediately preceding it are profoundly defining and formative experiences for them. They affect and accompany the girls for the rest of their lives.
The two girls could not be more dissimilar. Esther is diminutive, blond, quiet and emotionally fragile; Anna is tall, dark, assertive and emotionally boisterous. Esther marries and remains in Winnipeg; Anna takes a trip to Manhattan and decides to live there. In New York, she leads an unconventional, colourful life as a single woman – especially for that period of time – reaching out and connecting with numerous social causes, as well as with a few men along the way.
Anna explains her decision to remain in New York to Esther: “What I love about New York is that everybody thinks they belong. And everybody is different. I see women riding bicycles and men with earrings walking arm in arm with other men.… I go to Sachs’s Café most afternoons after the library. It’s a gathering place for intellectuals and radicals, most of them Eastern European. They’re passionate about so much, Esther: equality for women, slavery, politics and birth control. I take a book with me and pretend I’m reading, but really I’m listening to every word. I think one of the waiters here, Simon, has figured out what I’m doing. He told me the other day that Emma Goldman was at a table behind mine and asked if I would like to meet her.… I’ll become politically involved as well. I feel like I belong somewhere, Esther, finally.”
Anna is true to her word. While carefully planning an exacting and exhausting livelihood, she becomes an activist for causes she cherishes, particularly on behalf of individuals whom she perceives as being abused and oppressed.
Riding the imaginary literary train of Anna’s gregarious, stubborn, humanistic nature, Chisvin takes the reader through a panorama of iconic social and cultural moments and developments of the last century. She moves from the pogroms of the 1880s in eastern Europe, to the sadistic brutalities of the Russian revolution, the cruel, brazen exploitation of women in the Lower East Side sweatshops, the collapse of the stock market, the sufferings wrought by the Great Depression, the abject discrimination against blacks and the lack of equal rights and unfair treatment of women. However, the story merely touches upon these developments. To elaborate upon some of these compelling themes would have been welcomed.
In struggling to fit together the pieces of the last day of Esther’s life, Anna is forced, in the process, to put together the missing pieces of her own life. We see that the shattering forces at the beginning of the girls’ lives ultimately determined their emotional and psychological outcomes years later.
It is not likely a coincidence that Chisvin gave the sisters names that carry within them clues to the girls’ respective natures and to the novel’s dramatic outcome. The name Esther, in Hebrew, refers to something that is hidden. Esther’s nickname for her sister is Bencke – “from a Yiddish word … homesick.” More generally, bencke means to long for something. And, of course, Anna’s last name, literally, is Grieve.
Eventually, after she has gone back home, to Russia and to Winnipeg, Anna assembles the full picture of both of their lives.
Chisvin is an experienced and talented writer. She is a journalist, a radio and television documentary producer, an advertising copywriter and a teacher at the Ontario College of Art and Design. A Fist Around the Heart is her first work of fiction. It commendably combines the sleuthing of a mystery novel and the sweep of a historian’s horizon with an outpouring of hope for a better society.