Memento Park, by Mark Sarvas

35259562Matt Santos has had the misfortune of completely misunderstanding his father. He thought he knew enough about Gabor Szántós’ life in Hungary during the war and after to explain his gruffness, his obsession with toy cars, and his reluctance to talk about the past. But after Matt learns that a rare painting might have been stolen from the family in 1944 at the beginning of Mark Sarvas’ Memento Park, he finally starts to see how little he really knew.

Matt has done his best to distance himself from his father. Gabor was a tough man to live with. He would get angry for the smallest reasons. His toy cars were sacred and not to be touched. Any talk about the past was ruthlessly suppressed. When news of a lost painting by Ernst Kálman (fictional as far as I can tell) arrives, Gabor refuses to say anything and tells Matt that they “have nothing to with them.” But the painting gives Matt a perfect opportunity to investigate his origins himself.

With only hints about his Hungarian Jewish heritage, Matt has no idea who he is. He’s felt the lack of an understanding about his family history. Every time he gets close to Judaism—mezuzahs, the cantor’s songs, shabbes dinner—he feels a frisson of belonging. It’s more than he got from his father and it baffles him why Gabor cut himself off from their collective past. It’s only when Matt has a brush with violent anti-Semitism himself that he starts to understand what it means, even now, to be a Jew.

Matt tells his story (silently) to an unlistening security guard in the gallery where the recovered painting hangs. The framing feels a little gimmicky at times, but it allows Matt to move back and forth through time. He lets us reflect on his growing awareness of misunderstanding his father, how Judaism fills the gaps in his existence, and his tangled relationships with two women with missions that he falls in love with. It’s an affecting story and, even though I got a little exasperated by Matt’s neediness, I enjoyed his discoveries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 13 March 2018.

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