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Csardas by Diane Pearson

Csardas - Diane Pearson

It’s a shame this book is so unknown, because it’s an excellent and highly entertaining work of historical fiction. I blame the romance-y cover and foreign title, neither of which is an accurate representation of the book’s contents. This is a family saga spanning several decades, and like all epics it has a bit of romance in it, but that is far from the focus, especially after the first 100 pages. As for the title (pronounced CHAR-dosh), it’s probably the only Hungarian word in the book; Csardas was written by an English author and presents no accessibility problems for English-speaking readers.

This book tells the story of a wealthy Hungarian family, beginning in 1914 and ending in the late 1940’s; it begins with their comfortable pre-war lives, and covers WWI and WWII, as well as the aftermath of both and the years in between. We begin the story with sisters Amalia and Eva, attending parties and looking out for eligible husbands, but the first war changes their lives in unexpected ways, and by the second the story has largely moved on to the younger generation.

Pearson is an excellent storyteller, and though this is a long book, there’s never a dull moment. A lesser author might have readers impatient for the next war to come, but the characters and their stories are compelling enough in its absence that I felt the wars for what they were, tragic intrusions on people’s lives. Pearson takes risks with the characters, including some important deaths that occur off-page, but this strategy pays off, as readers are put in the shoes of relatives left wondering what happened to their loved ones. It is not a happy book, especially toward the end, but it was an ugly time and I’m glad Pearson chose not to sugarcoat it. I also appreciate that, though WWII is given its due, it doesn’t swallow the book; certainly an entire novel could be written about the family’s experiences during those few years, and many such novels exist, but this one has 35 years of Hungarian and family history to cover, and it doesn’t shortchange the lesser-known parts.

As for the characters, they’re well-developed and their evolution over the years believable, and Pearson makes good use of omniscient narration to show us their complexities (though this works slightly less well in letters to one another that attempt to explain their own cultural assumptions). The changes and upheavals in Hungarian society are also shown well, and the author makes good use of detail to bring the setting to life. The writing is adequate to carry the story along, though in a couple of places I had to snicker at the thought that this was written by an editor (was “she said explanatorily” really considered an acceptable dialogue tag in 1975?). Despite those few hiccups, it’s an immersive story that feels well-researched and believable.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or family sagas. Csardas is now out of print and not an easy book to find, but it’s worth the trouble.