The legacy of Soviet aggression against Hungary is very much apparent in Ailsa Kay’s arresting debut novel. While the book’s early chapters resemble a treatise on how academia and “lived experience” are liable to interpret history differently, Under Budapest soon morphs into a visceral narrative of a city in the throes of invasion. It also includes a love story reminiscent (if somewhat derivative) of The English Patient, with promises made between lovers in the heat of conflict, only to be broken.
The novel tells the story of Tibor Roland and his mother, Agnes, who travel to modern-day Budapest for very different reasons. Tibor is there partly to deliver a lecture on Hungarian history, but he’s mostly on the lam after having an affair with the wife of a former rival back in Toronto. Agnes hopes to uncover what happened to her younger sister Zsofi during the 1956 Soviet invasion. The mystery involves the tunnels running beneath Budapest (possibly used by both Russian torturers and fleeing Hungarians). It also touches on a love affair between Zsofi and Agnes’s former husband, Gyula. The two tales intersect in a slightly improbable way when Tibor witnesses the brutal murder of a street tough in circumstances very much entwined with Zsofi’s disappearance and death.
In the beginning, Under Budapest struggles a great deal with these various threads. The novel opens from the perspective of the murdered man, the prose marked by his reflexive profanity and off-putting turns of phrase. Why Kay would open her novel this way is frankly baffling, as the character ultimately plays such a small role. The storyline involving Tibor’s affair in Toronto grabs our attention early, then trails off in an unsatisfying manner.
But once Kay tucks in to the meat of her story, Under Budapest becomes a riveting and tautly plotted historical drama. The author captures the frenzy and terror of the city as the Soviet tanks roll in, and the psychological impact the invasion has on her characters. Best of all, she never overplays the novel’s chief metaphor: Budapest’s tunnels, which act as stand-ins for the depths of human suffering and human endurance. Kay handles this symbolism like a seasoned pro.