“The change that came about in her life robbed her of so much it was as if a bomb had destroyed her home.”
Abigail is like a finely made Swiss watch: elegant, precise, measured. It is a novel that is like clockwork in that it never falters, so assured is it in its storytelling, its tone, its pace. It quietly lays out each piece of its story with purpose but without fanfare: Hungary 1943, a fifteen-year-old girl is inexplicably sent to a boarding school by her father–it all seems straightforward. But Szabó’s brilliance lies in how she is able to bring together all the little pieces of her novel into a climax that stuns, moves, and surprises you in equal measure. The hints are all laid out for you to piece together–and you can to a certain extent–but you become so invested in following the story as it is presented to you, in Gina’s joys and sorrows, that you forget that the breadcrumbs do, in fact, lead somewhere. And once you get there, everything just clicks. Ultimately, I think that’s Szabó’s greatest skill as a writer: she deftly carves out these small moments throughout her narrative, only to reveal to you the sheer force and heft that they can have once viewed together.
I would also be remiss not to mention how deeply human Szabó’s characters are. I felt so keenly for Gina, naive and snobbish as she sometimes is, but also endearingly kind and empathetic. And the community of girls that Szabó creates around Gina is so alive and fully realized; I really felt like I was with these girls as they tried their best to navigate the “monochrome” world of their strict school and its unyielding rules. But by far my favourite dynamic in this novel was the one between Gina and her father. I can’t recall the last time I read about a father-daughter relationship that was so beautifully and tenderly drawn. (It makes me want to cry just thinking about it, to be honest.)
Abigail is an excellent novel while you’re reading it, but it is a brilliant one once you finish it. The writing, the storytelling, the characters–all just pitch perfect. If Magda Szabó’s other novels are as good as this one–and you better believe I’ll be reading the rest of her work–then I may very well have found a new favourite author.
(Thanks so much to New York Review Books for sending me a review copy of this! I’m so excited to read more of their NYRB Classics collection–they all sound AMAZING.)