Forgiving Mariela Camacho, by A. J. Sidransky. Berwick Court Publishing Company. 316 pages. Trade paperback $16.95.
Review by Philip K. Jason
This book has a highly original focus that was first developed in Sidransky’s earlier Forgiving Maximo Rothman. Sidransky is able to intertwine the experiences of various cultural communities: the Dominican Republic, the Dominican section of Washington Heights (upper Manhattan), the neighboring population of Jews, and Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. It highlights the improbable story of Sosúa, a story of desperate Jewish refugees who were given sanctuary in the Dominican Republic beginning in 1938. And, for good measure, there are excursions to Germany and Israel.
The author handles these largely unfamiliar relationships by building his plot around a case handled by two New York City police detectives, Anatoly Kurchenko and Pete Gonzalvez, who are not only partners on the force but also best friends. Their names will immediately signal their ethnic backgrounds.
Anatoly (“Tolya”) was an orphan who somehow made his way to the U. S. His Russian background is presented much more sketchily than Pete’s life in the Dominican Republic (it is detailed in Forgiving Maximo Rothman as is the wartime history of Sosúa). Tolya remembers well his maternal grandfather, whom he had visited in the Ukraine as a boy. That grandfather was the last in the family to be given a Hebrew name.
Tolya identifies himself as Jewish, though the rabbi who is preparing Tolya’s wife Karin for conversion and the conversion of their two sons wishes that Tolya would take action to strengthen his Jewish credentials. Perhaps a rededication. Karin is a former detective who now, on the brink of bringing another child into the world, has found work as the planner of a tribute to Sosúa at a Jewish museum.
Pete has been married for many years to Glynnis, but his heart’s memory brings him over and over again to his thwarted passion for Mariela Camacho, a Dominican beauty whom he courted but who wouldn’t allow him to abandon his commitments.
The novel explodes when a corpse is discovered attached to a diabolical killing contraption – a suicide machine. Pete and Tolya are assigned to investigate; shockingly, the corpse turns out to be that of Mariela. Pete is sick with grief and guilt. Both men agree that there is much about this death that does not look like suicide, and they get their captain to label the case a homicide investigation.
As the novel progresses, the chapters detailing the partners’ investigation play out in counterpoint to chapters that develop the personality and background of a mad genius who turns out to be a serial killer, having used that death machine on numerous occasions. Sidransky skillfully builds an understanding of his mad momentum and his targeting, indirectly, of Tolya – who represents for him (ironically) the good fortune of the Jews who could get out of the USSR. This man, who has taken many names during his depraved life, and whose family had immigrated to Israel by forging Jewish identities, goes so far as to become a patron of Karin’s exhibit. Can you guess where this is going?
This novel, dark in so many ways, is relieved by the “odd couple” humor in the relationship between Pete and Tolya. Their banter is infectious, as is the interplay between their contrasting personal styles as detectives, immigrants, and husbands.
Indeed, the large cast of characters is well-imaged, and each of the many settings is handled with vividness and authority.
For many readers, the lessons in Judaism that Karin receives from Rabbi Rothman and transmits to her sons will be an inspiring highlight – a moving example of the conversion process at work.
Aside from all of its local color, insights regarding immigrant communities, police work, and ethnic/religious identity, Forgiving Mariela Camacho is a riveting thriller with distinctive dialogue and sure-fire pacing.
Sidransky’s reputation is growing fast. The National Jewish Book Awards selected his first novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, as a finalist in Outstanding Debut Fiction for 2013. Next Generation Indie Book Awards selected his next book, Stealing a Summer’s Afternoon, as a finalist for Best Second Novel for 2015. His third “Forgiving” novel is slated for 2017.
This review appears in the February 2016 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Charlotte and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).