2016 Big Book Award (3rd place) and Reader’s Choice Award

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At first glance, Yacov’s Ladder perfectly embodies the generic definition of a “family saga.” The story of several generations of Osetskys, who were originally from Kiev and then transplanted to Moscow, spans an entire century, from 1911 to 2011. The family saga is, however, no more than a shell, a shapely vessel chosen by the author in her search for answers to the questions posed inexorably and unrelentingly by literature and philosophy since the beginning of human existence: to what degree is the human individual free or unfree? How do circumstances, DNA, or history combine to determine or condition the individual personality?

The novel revolves around two axes, Nora and her grandfather, Yakov Osetsky. Nora and Yakov have seen each other only once, in the mid-1950s, when Nora was just a child, and Yakov’s life was already nearing its end. The encounter was no more than a fleeting episode for both of them. A true meeting of minds and souls occurred only much later, in 2011, when Nora had already emerged from the commotion and tumult of everyday existence and the course of her life was winding down, and she read the diaries of her grandfather, as well as his family correspondence (which covered many decades), and the dossier of Yakov Osetsky from the KGB archives.

From the first page, the reader is thrust headlong into the masterfully depicted world of the main character, Nora Osetsky. Nearly all the people who play an important role in her life appear in the narrative in quick succession: her son Yorik, theater director Tengiz Kuziani, her mother Amalia, her father Henrik, her grandmother Marusya, and an “occasional” husband Victor. The people are enmeshed in themes and objects: theater, the career of a set designer, books, sugar tongs, an old blouse trimmed with an ancient Egyptian motif, and an osier chest holding the family archives.

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