It was a rainy November night when prize-winning author Jessica Keener came to the South End library to read from her second novel, Strangers in Budapest, but some two dozen people braved the weather to hear all about it, anyway. The novel tells the story of a young American family in the early 1990s pursuing a post-Communist-era business opportunity in the architecturally glittering city on the Danube.
Annie in her thirties and husband Will are from Boston and just adopted a baby. Annie is fleeing her painful past and hoping to create a better future for her family, but encounters a city with inhabitants that are scarred by their own difficult history, dominated by Communism and the Nazi occupation. Annie and Will are asked to check up on the tenant of neighbors in the US, Edward, who is working through the wrongful death of his daughter and trying to figure out how far revenge should take him. He digs at Annie’s secrets: In trying to help others, is she trying to help herself?
Boston Magazine called Strangers in Budapest “a perfect page-turner for late autumn" and the Library Journal said it was a “slow burn of an international psychological thriller.” The novel was chosen for Best New Books for November by the Chicago Review of Books and was selected as an INDIE NEXT pick for December 2017. Keener told an intent audience she was interested in “plopping Americans in a different culture and see what happens” and, more generally, in the expectations of individuals and how these interact with the norms of society. “There was a tango between the locals and the Americans where the Americans think all is possible and the Hungarians think everything is impossible,” Keener said.
Keener, who grew up in Newtonville, MA, spent a year in Budapest herself. She didn’t know the language, which felt “shocking” to her and made her feel she was “the other.” While soaking up the city’s culture, she could not escape how the gorgeous architecture of the buildings was marred by bullet holes and the ravages of war. “There’s a mystery in Budapest’s presence,” Keener reflected. “It’s a magical city in certain ways, somewhat like Boston, very walkable and with a river running through it. There are even streetcars. But the violent marking are so present. The war seemed still so close.”
Themes of death and violence run through Keener’s work, in part forced by her own experience as a teenager faced with a life-threatening blood disease. Keener’s short-story collection, Women in Bed, includes Recovery, a tale based on her illness, which she survived thanks to an experimental bone-marrow transplant in the 1970s. The story won Redbook Magazine's second prize in fiction. But even before that happened, Keener had become familiar with her father’s memories of helping to liberate the concentration camp, Dachau, a powerful experience he couldn’t articulate, she said, because he couldn’t understand how that could happen. “He would cry talking about it,” she recalled. “It influenced me as a Jew. And as a Jew going back to Europe I had to think about oppression a lot,” she added.
In response to a question from the audience about the menace and brooding quality of the novel, its sense of lurking danger, as well as the high, poetry-like quality of her prose, Keener answered she had to face death “for a good long time.” Poetry is an exploration of the mystery of life, she elaborated. Keener said she could not relate to reviewers’ descriptions of her novel as a thriller, either. “I see myself more as a psychological writer of suspense,” she commented, “someone who explores the urgency of the characters’ needs, the outer layer of their extreme emotions, the rage and grief that comes with facing death. I am interested in the human psyche, in the mystery of life. We’re all survivors of silence.”
Keener’s debut novel, Night Swim, was a widely praised national bestseller. Her fiction has been critically reviewed by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Booklist, The Jewish Book Council, and Publisher's Weekly, among many others. She has taught creative writing and wrote many feature articles for the Boston Globe Magazine, Opra Magazine, Design New England and Poets and Writers, among other publications. She is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Fiction.
Keener was introduced by one of Boston’s At-large city councilors, Annissa Essaibi-George, who said she loves to read and wished she had more time for it. Essaibi-George, the parent of four sons and a strong education and library advocate on the City Council, added she hopes her sons will become great readers, too.