When Lillian Leyb’s whole family is killed in a Russian pogrom – brutally slaughtered by their neighbours simply for being Jewish – she boards a ship to a new country and ends up in New York City, sharing a cramped apartment with a cousin and a rotating cast of other roommates. A job at a local theatre though throws her into the path of the Boorsteins, both father and son, and soon Lillian’s luck seems to have changed. But when she receives word that her daughter, Sophie, is still alive, she sets out on a journey to find her. Travelling across America to Seattle and then North up the Telegraph Trail to Dawson City. Lillian is determined to cross the Bering Sea and reach Siberia to find her little girl.
I had added Away to my TBR list some time back and largely forgotten what it was about when I saw that it was available as an audiobook from my library. One thing I’m learning about audiobooks is that there’s no blurb to refresh my memory or familiarize me with the plot and characters before I get started. So while none of the plotline I’ve shared here would count as a spoiler, I was continuously surprised by what Lillian was doing next.
The story has a very sweeping feel to it. While Lillian is undoubtedly our protagonist and the story is focused tightly on her, Bloom also diverts occasionally to follow other characters after Lillian parts ways with them. In brief asides, Bloom leads us through the rest of their lives right up to their deaths. This lends the story a larger feel, something more like a generational epic. It also adds to making the book feel even more like a book about America and its history. The action of the story is set in the 1920s but the glimpses at their pasts and futures are also a glimpse of America’s. Many of the characters are immigrants, many are minorities, learning to live in a country that wants their labour but not their language or skin colour.
Lillian herself is a likeable enough character and although she makes many choices I certainly wouldn’t, it’s never hard to understand why she is doing what she is doing and it always felt true to the character that I’d come to know. I wanted to root for her and I wanted her journey to be successful.
A note on the audio: I have nothing to comment on the narrator, which I think is ideal because I feel like you want the narrator to fade into the background. I appreciated being able to hear the correct pronunciation for some words and conversation that take place in Yiddish. There were a couple of scenes of violence that I found really hard to listen to and made me realize that when I come across scenes like that on the page, I read faster or even skim over them, something that wasn’t possible when they were being spoken into my ear. There were also a few sex scenes where I kept making sure my headphones were well and truly plugged in as I walked to work!