Book #10 – Abigail

Magda Szabó, trans. Len Rix, 2020

My tenth book in the 2022 challenge is Abigail by Magda Szabó. The book satisfies Category 5 of the challenge, a lesser-known book of a popular author. Describing this book as “lesser-known” might surprise Hungarian readers, as it is her most widely-read book in Hungarian. However, it was only translated into English in 2020, over a decade after Szabó’s death and a good 50 years after it was originally published.

In the English-speaking world, if people know of Szabó’s work at all, they probably think of The Door, which received renewed attention in 2015 with a new English translation. Incidentally, the person who did that translation, Len Rix, also did this translation of Abigail.

Szabó has a wide literary output that unfortunately remains mostly unknown outside the Hungarian-speaking world. She also wrote for a variety of age groups. Indeed, most people familiar with Abigail consider it a young adult novel, and Szabó wrote for even younger audiences, too.

The book

Gina Vitay is the beloved teenage daughter of a widowed general living in Budapest. She lives a comfortable life going to teas put on by her aunt and rubbing elbows with members of high society, including some romantic interest in a young army lieutenant. Although World War II is in full swing, it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the day-to-day lives of these people.

Everything changes when the general tells Gina he is sending her away to a Calvinist boarding school in a small town in the eastern part of the country. This seems to come out of nowhere to Gina, and she doesn’t take the news well. Her father’s insistence on secrecy and refusal to explain his motives don’t help, either.

Gina struggles to adapt to the strict rules at her new school, and a social gaffe makes her an outcast among her peers. Her only chance for help comes from a statue on the campus that everyone refers to as Abigail. Local legend says that students with big problems can leave Abigail a note explaining their situation and she will help them. Can Abigail help Gina with her problems? Are even bigger problems on the horizon?

What I liked

“World building” is often discussed in genres like fantasy and science fiction, but I think it’s worth mentioning here, too. Szabó does an excellent job of showing the contrast between Gina’s life in Budapest and her life at the school. Because everything at the school is so foreign to her, her process of figuring things out performs a similar function for the reader without things getting too info-dumpy. Szabó taught at a school like the one described in the book, so I’m sure that informed her writing, too.

In contrast to my complaints regarding some recent books, I found this book very structurally sound. There are no loose ends in the storytelling. We need to know about Gina’s life in Budapest so we can see what a shock her new school environment is for her. When characters disappear, you know why they disappear.

I also want to throw a quick shout-out to Samantha Desz, the narrator of the audiobook version, which is how I consumed this book. Her pronunciation of Hungarian names is on point, which is hard to come by in the English-speaking world.

What I didn’t like

There was one recurring bit in this book that almost felt like a tic. On several occasions, the book says something like, “Years later, when Gina was with her husband and children…”, and those bits took me out of the story. I think they might have been included because there was less tolerance for seeing kids in danger in stories than there is now. For instance, The Hunger Games clearly does not have this problem. These reassurances may have felt necessary at the time but are more likely to feel like unnecessary interruptions for today’s readers.

Overall verdict

YA doesn’t make up a huge percentage of my bookshelf, so I worried that the book might be too simplistic for my tastes (my mostly unfounded genre trepidations seem to be another recurring theme in this challenge). But not every book needs to be some great literary challenge. Sometimes books can just be fun with good storytelling and decent characters. This can be a good palate cleanser after reading something you find particularly taxing.

What’s next?

The next book is Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins. This satisfies Category 6, a novel written by a woman published before 1940.

Do you enjoy YA novels? If so, what are some of your favorites? Leave your thoughts in the comments!





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