Like the Appearance of Horses: A Novel
- By Andrew Krivak
- Bellevue Literary Press
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Marilyn Oser
- June 1, 2023
A multigenerational family endures love, loss, and war in this evocative tale.
Andrew Krivak’s Like the Appearance of Horses is the final installment of his Dardan trilogy. Dardan, a small mountain town in Pennsylvania, is the root and center of this story of three generations. While a knowledge of the first two novels might deepen the overall experience, this reader can attest that it’s not essential for savoring the third.
Jozef Vinich, an immigrant from central Europe, has settled in Dardan following World War I and gathered together a parcel of land so large, you could walk all day and not leave it. The story opens in 1933, with his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, watching the approach of a strange-looking boy: ill-dressed, unkempt, foreign, a few years her senior. He is Becks, whose life Jozef saved in Hungary in 1919. Half Romany and raised by his grandfather, Becks has escaped the growing fascist threat in Europe and come in search of Jozef, who takes him in as part of the family.
He officially becomes part of it in 1940, when he and Hannah marry. They have two sons, Bo and Samuel, and all of them treasure Jozef’s farm with a deep, abiding love. It’s not too much to say that the land and their connection to it is so strong, and Krivak’s descriptions of it so rich, that the land itself becomes, if not a character, then close to one by reason of its emotional pull on them all.
And yet Becks leaves that land when the war against the Nazis draws him back across the ocean. After seeing his entire U.S. Army unit lost in the Battle of the Bulge, he joins the Resistance, returning to the region of his birth to locate the people who raised him. Following a protracted absence, he returns to Dardan a different man — silent, bitter, morose, and changed by war as Jozef, too, had been changed.
The pattern is repeated in Becks and Hannah’s younger son, Samuel, whose enlistment in the military during the Vietnam War alters not only his life, but that of his brother and of his girlfriend. By the time he comes back to them, after two tours of duty and time lost in a horrific Hanoi prison, Samuel is “like the empty shell of a locust,” a shattered specter of the prodigal hellion he’d once been. His return to Dardan discomposes everyone, threatening the peace they’ve found despite the difficulties of their lives.
This pattern of leaving the land; of experiencing danger, trauma, and imprisonment of one kind or another; and of eventually returning to the same place but a different reality — this death and rebirth — forms the core of the family’s saga. The narrative, though, is anything but linear. It unfolds in eight sections that move back and forth in time, like jigsaw pieces of a picture, each segment deepening a part of the story until all of it has been laid bare.
A startling clarity characterizes the language, which can only be called luminous. The pace is slow, deliberate, and often dreamlike. I, for one, plunged into it and didn’t want to emerge. What dialogue there is has a deep and simple honesty about it, a directness and purity in what the characters choose to tell each other. Here’s part of the conversation Jozef has with Hannah when his wife — her mother — dies of an illness that the daughter survives:
I can’t feel what you feel, he said. But I feel empty and angry that she has been taken away from us. And I’m tired, too. So tired I want to stop and rest, but where would I rest? Anywhere I’d go, I’d be looking for her. Rooms. Orchards. Gardens. The barn. Anywhere. And now she’s nowhere. Nowhere.
He pulled her close.
I thought I was going to lose you, too, he said in a voice that barely rose above a whisper. So sitting here talking to you is some relief to all of this sadness. But then I look up and there she is. Or rather, there she isn’t. And I’m empty and angry all over again. Just like you.
The author’s style is supple, with many compound structures and relatively few clauses. Frequently, the second part of a sentence contradicts or negates the first. “Becks stopped before him and stood and wondered how quickly he could take the fountain pen from his uniform shirt pocket and push it like a tent peg into the beaten man’s purple eye.” So quiet a line, and yet so violent.
In word choice, too, the author manages a peculiar slant that nails the most subtle thought or feeling: “he sipped short breaths”; “a forest emptied of war”; “she kissed him on a cheek rife with stubble.”
Krivak’s previous four novels have been selected for special recognition by the Mountain Book Competition and the NEA; one of his earlier Dardan books was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Chatauqua Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; and the other was a Chatauqua finalist. Like the Appearance of Horses rightfully promises to be singled out for similar distinction.
Marilyn Oser is the author of the novels This Storied Land, November to July, Even You, and Rivka’s War; the blog “Streets of Israel”; and other short fiction and nonfiction. A recipient of the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Prize, she has been called “a particularly gifted novelist” by the Midwest Review.