Fishman balances brilliantly on the treacherous tightrope of using language to explore the inadequacy of language ... It is the details that make Fishman’s novel convincing, from the marinated peppers with buckwheat honey at the grandmother’s funeral, to the vivid semi-inventions of her backstory: a baby choked to prevent discovery, a boy’s trousers soaked in fear ... A Replacement Life is an elegy for loss (of families, health, sanity) and a plea for compassion. It raises serious questions about identity and history. Comically human flaws are juxtaposed with a violent, ineluctable past, and survivors are 'the walking wounded', psychologically and physically. 'We are talking about people I love,' says Slava. 'We are talking about people who have suffered.'
...a powerful yet tender narrative that explores the tug of war between the past and the future for immigrant families in America ... A Replacement Life is as real and vibrant as the south Brooklyn neighborhoods...where the book's older characters live. These personalities are not shortchanged in complexity or depth of description. They are neither saints nor sinners but something in between. Initially overlooked by the narrator as hopelessly outdated and senile, this community of displaced, long-suffering survivors gains importance with each passing chapter ... Fishman's own mastery of both Russian and English, especially when describing people and places, keeps A Replacement Life from bogging down in revelations and epiphanies. Some of his descriptions are laugh-outloud funny ... Fishman never loses the reader's trust. No line in this book rings false, no character is unheard, no event seems like a plot device. The novel is like a story that a grandparent might tell you at the dinner table—one of those stories that the young may ignore only to regret their impatience later.
Published in America...to rave reviews, A Replacement Life is that risky thing: a book about a writer, writing, which explores the boundaries between fact and fiction, lies and truth ... The first 40 pages are thick with overwriting ... Then the prose relaxes slightly and the plot kicks in ... As a chronicler of the immigrant experience, Fishman can be funny and astute. But mostly the tone is an unhappy mix of baroque comedy and meta-moralising about the nature of truth. Towards the end, the story lurches queasily into Kingsley Amis-style farce ... a novel that relies too heavily on the horrors of war for its power. For a clever, witty, tender, horrifying, self-referential account of the Holocaust, as told from the perspective of a survivor’s descendant, you want Art Spiegelman, not Fishman: the former’s brilliant Maus books are everything that A Replacement Life is not.
I was always going to like this novel ... It is about Russia and Russian-ness and America and American-ness, about the relationship between the generations, history, atonement, fact, fiction, biography, literature and the process of writing ... Literary allusions (and illusions, and even delusions) are everywhere laced into the novel’s seams: Fishman shares the serious writer’s savouring of word selection and imagery ... My one criticism is that the first chapter is the weakest ... The inventions of the stories are this story’s great invention but you have to wait a while for them to charge the book with thematic originality. Overall, Fishman is at his best – as are so many Russian-descendent writers – in the disputed territory between truth and lies.
...shows just how different American and Soviet sensibilities are ... At first, A Replacement Life seems like another novel about a confused young Russian in America. But as the novel progresses, something changes: As Slava embraces the history of the older generation of Soviet Jews, the writing grows in depth and breadth. Fishman raises fascinating questions about how people endure generations of hardship and persecution, particularly their need to bend the truth to survive hostile conditions. And how difficult, sometimes impossible, it is to adjust to American life. Slava is one of the few who wants to become American; in the end, he acknowledges he may not be able to escape his own Russian psyche.
American writers are getting more comfortable with being funny about the Holocaust. This is a tricky business, of course — there's a fine line between irreverent and offensive. But it can be done: ...[a] smart debut novel ... It gives nothing away to say that Slava eventually has to reckon with his deceptions. And if you know your New York debut novels, you'll be unsurprised to hear that Slava has a romantic conflict, too — whom shall he choose, the fetching fact-checker, or the girl from the old country? Underneath those familiar plot lines, though, are some spiky provocations about what kind of suffering deserves restitution, and how storytelling can paper over reality. 'I can imagine myself as the person who's forging,' Slava says. 'But I can also imagine myself as the person who turns in the forger. How can that be?' Fishman's novel is a deft and funny exploration of the answer.
In A Replacement Life, literary journalist Boris Fishman’s ambitious first novel, we enter a richly comic world of aging Russian Jewish immigrants, still fierce in their will to survive after so much misery wrought by Hitler and Stalin, and their spiritually lost new world grandchildren, displaced from the cradle of Brooklyn...to Manhattan, struggling to locate themselves, to figure out a city that remains alien and bewildering. Fishman’s achievement in A Replacement Life is how he evokes — summons — Slava’s awakened filiality ... In Fishman’s moving conclusion, Slava seems cleansed, ready to move on, his soft twenty-first century life 'replaced' by the rigor of history and memory, embodied in the figure of his grandmother.
Fishman’s ending is both surprising and satisfying ... to make his stories convincing he has to get the details right, and despite the leaps of faith Fishman demands he provides more than enough correct details and well crafted figurative turns of phrase to convince most readers to go along with him—and those who do will be amply rewarded by this multidimensional and handsomely written debut novel.
...[a] darkly comic, world-wise debut ... Instead of making a dour morality tale, Fishman mines this setup for comedy, satirizing the magazine’s preaching about accuracy (which proves to be conditional) and portraying Slava as an easily led intellectual schlemiel ... The novel is largely carried on Fishman’s sharp wit, ear for dialect and close character studies, which capture the sociological nuances of everyone from preening magazine editors to doting relatives ... Slava’s romantic and professional reckonings in the closing pages are inevitable, but Fishman thoughtfully raises questions of what Holocaust-era suffering is deserving of recompense. A smart first novel that’s unafraid to find humor in atrocity.
The debut novel from Fishman shines with a love for language and craft ... Fishman’s description of the precious information that grandparents pass down is beautiful; their memories have been a burden for Slava...but he learns their real value in the course of this forging scheme. Writers like Slava, and like Fishman, have a responsibility to do justice to the beauty in the details, and Fishman achieves that handily here.