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Losing the Dead

by Lisa Appignanesi

There is an intensely immediate quality to Lisa Appignanesi’s family memoir Losing the Dead. The story is told in the present tense with constant temporal shifts that transport the reader from wartime Poland, to 1950s Paris, to contemporary Montreal.

Author of the recent best-selling thriller The Dead of Winter, Appignanesi offers something entirely different here. Born in Poland in 1946, she carries with her the weight of wartime strife, a burden passed down from Jewish parents who lived in fear of the Nazi regime.

Appignanesi, née Borensztejn, shapes without judgment the lives and personalities of her parents, brings to the foreground an element often undiscussed in the realm of Jewishness, the notion of wanting to be un-Jewish. Part of Appignanesi’s exploration is for her mother’s sake, who was often mistaken for a shiksa (a non-Jew), and who took full advantage of the convenience of this mistake. But, over time, she develops a double identity – that of a non-Jew and that of a Jew, depending on the circumstances. She carries this with her long after the war ends.

After her mother sees a young man on television whom she is convinced is her long-lost brother’s son, she coaxes Appignanesi to return to Poland in search of the lost relative and the buried past. To take us there, Appignanesi guides us through events in her childhood, events in her parents’ young lives, and ones in her own present life. It becomes clear that the survival of Appignanesi’s family hinged upon her mother’s shiksa appearance.

Losing the Dead is poetic in its language, compassionate in its portrayal of the past, and poignant in its search for the truth. One senses that while Appignanesi may have sought closure for her mother, she also finds it for herself.