Maybe Esther: A Family Story

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Product Details

Harper Perennial
Publish Date
5.2 X 7.9 X 0.7 inches | 0.45 pounds

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About the Author

Katja Petrowskaja was born in 1970 in Kiev. She studied at the University of Tartu, Estonia, and was also awarded research fellowships to study at Columbia University in New York, and Stanford in California. Katja Petrowskaja received her PhD in Moscow. Since 1999, she has lived and worked in Berlin. Maybe Esther is her first book, and is translated into 20 languages.

About the Translator

Shelley Frisch's numerous translations from the German, which include biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Franz Kafka, have been awarded Modern Language Association and Helen and Kurt Wolff translation prizes. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Shelley Frisch's translations from the German--which include biographies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich/Leni Riefenstahl (dual biography), and Franz Kafka--have been awarded numerous translation prizes. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


"Maybe Esther dwells between memory and oblivion, among the maybes, what-ifs, shoulds, and coulds of history...As she desperately tries to extract these last storytellers from their chosen oblivion, Petrowskaja assumes their forsaken role, bearing witness to events that she can only just imagine."--Los Angeles Review of Books
"This is a work of ongoing history, written with the impressionistic eye of a novelist, a fervent meditation on language and loss surging with a remarkable cast of characters, forgotten to time and memory for decades, here vividly summoned to life. Wry, questing, discursive, it has, unsurprisingly, become a bestseller and literary prize-winner throughout Europe."--Financial Times
"A fascinatingly inventive literary debut...In the hope of creating a family tree, Petrowskaja pieces together something far more complex and original, an account of her own search for meaning within the stories of her ancestors."--Entertainment Weekly
"A mesmerizing memoir of Petrowskaja's tribe...from Berlin to Babi Yar, Mauthausen to Moscow...Even the tragedies are leavened by wit and lyricism."--Jewish Chronicle
"The ultimate achievement of this remarkable book is to have forged a language out of muteness; a language quiet enough to describe the indescribable events of the last century with more beauty and curiosity than horror...At a time when the meaning of Europe has become a question, this is a book that suggests the answer lies in the intertwined histories of the rootless...Petrowskaya's relatives, as described in this bestselling Sebaldian memoir, collectively conjure up the Russian revolution, the world wars and the Holocaust."--The Guardian
"This is writing that dazzles--deeply thoughtful and with insights that flash like sharp implements...sentences that swoop and soar...It is silences like these--the disappeared years and unspeakable (literally) experiences--that Petrowskaja excels at teasing back into life."--New Statesman
"Intelligent, introspective, uniquely crafted, and erudite...The familial stories illuminate the history of troubling times in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany...There is no denying that the characters are fascinating, like the history about which Petrowskaja writes."--New York Journal of Books
"Extraordinary and profoundly moving...Often elegiac, Maybe Esther bears comparison with W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn...Notwithstanding the terrible nature of some of the events Petrowskaja records, there is considerable wit, humor and warmth in her intelligent and haunting story."--The Times Literary Supplement
"This intimately told quest into the darkness of the 20th century is luminously unforgettable. The rich humanism of Petrowskaja's gaze, her many-cultured, good-humored sensitivity, and her visionary use of the themes that emerge from her family's histories--silence, muteness, disguise, survival--infuse this book with the qualities of a classic. Maybe Esther, on her civilizing journey 'against time', will stay with me forever."--Kapka Kassabova, author of Border
"There's a literary miracle on every page here, the sort of book that makes you fall in love with reading. There's poetry and politics in this family memoir, but most of all there's the pleasure of being in the company of Petrowskaja's talent. A Proust for the Google age."--Peter Pomerantsev, author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
"The kind of reading experience that makes me gasp, laugh, and feel inexpressibly grateful to a person who has decided to tell this story in this way... The book is breaking my heart, because I want to stop and quote from every other paragraph, and I want to give copies to people I love--I want, in other words, to stem the dissolution of storytelling that is the very point of this book.. I want it to last forever."--Masha Gessen, The New Yorker
"An incandescent family history...MAYBE ESTHER is rare in its lack of interest in requiting past wrongs. Petrowskaja reaches for neither repentance nor vindication, but rather an understanding of self, family, and history that can never be fully consummated...In these stories what is Jewish cannot be extricated from what is Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Soviet--as if Jewishness accentuated already rich colors in a tapestry."--Marci Shore, New York Review of Books

"An astonishing, eloquent and moving book about the traumas of the 20th century...It's a book about language, and memory, and about putting on someone else's language while, incongruously, retaining your own memory that was formed by a different language and by a reality other to the one surrounding you now... I also love her language. It is so polyphonic, she writes in German while thinking of words in Russian or English or other languages. Yet at the same time she does these complicated things very simply and very accessibly."--Eugene Ostashevsky, Poetry Foundation