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Review of “The Morningside” by Téa Obreht

On Island City, potentially Manhattan, in a once opulent residential complex known as The Morningside, an 11-year-old girl observes and absorbs the dynamics of her community while harboring a deep longing to uncover the secrets of her own heritage.

Silvia resides with her family – her mother and her aunt, Ena, who serves as the building’s superintendent – as refugees from an undisclosed nation, each carrying remnants of their traditions and folklore in distinct ways. Ena cherishes the past, preserving relics and recounting folk tales from their homeland, while Silvia’s mother, motivated by personal reasons to sever ties with the past, discourages inquiries about her father and their previous life.

Obreht skillfully portrays Ena and Silvia’s mother as embodiments of contrasting approaches to exile – embracing the past versus embracing the present and future. Despite their differing outlooks, the characters are richly developed and avoid becoming mere symbols of dichotomous ideologies. The novel subtly suggests that holding on and letting go may share more similarities than initially perceived by both the characters and readers.

Silvia and her family participate in a “Repopulation Program,” awaiting resettlement in a project aimed at revitalizing a city abandoned by its inhabitants following environmental catastrophes. The elites have sought refuge in safer territories, leaving behind a desolate landscape. The family hails from a place simply referred to as “Back Home,” resonating with Obreht’s previous works set in a vaguely Balkan backdrop, symbolizing a blend of post-war, post-communist, and speculative European elements. The narrative style and thematic depth echo Obreht’s earlier endeavors, emphasizing the significance of storytelling in navigating personal and collective histories.

The concept of “Back Home” transcends a specific geographical reference, embodying the universal experience of displacement and longing for one’s roots. The characters converse in a language termed “Ours,” a subtle yet poignant detail reflecting Obreht’s nuanced approach to weighty themes without succumbing to didacticism or overt symbolism.

Silvia’s inquisitive nature is piqued by her mother’s enigmatic past and Ena’s tales of the Vila, a spirit forced to wander due to global upheavals. The enigmatic artist Bezi Duras, also a fellow refugee, and his peculiar companions intrigue Silvia, hinting at hidden realms beneath the surface. Following Ena’s sudden demise, Silvia embarks on a journey of discovery, unveiling layers of mystery and magic woven into the fabric of her reality.

In Silvia, Obreht crafts a captivating protagonist whose youthful perspective infuses the narrative with humor, curiosity, and a tinge of apprehension. Supported by a diverse cast including the inquisitive Mila and the enigmatic writer Lewis May, the novel transcends dystopian undertones to offer a hopeful vision of a society rebuilding itself post-crisis. Themes of resilience, community, and solidarity shine through, exemplified by initiatives like the underground radio station Drowned City Dispatch, underscoring the narrative’s focus on unity amidst adversity.