Marie’s Reading: “Unterzakhn” by Leela Corman

Leela Corman’s graphic novel about two sisters in an immigrant neighborhood in New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century turned up on this list from NPR over the summer.  I was immediately struck by the cover art as well as the synopsis.

The story follows twin sisters Esther and Fanya from adolesence to adulthood, and the staggeringly different lives they lead even as they can’t keep their lives from intersecting.   The art resembles Russian folk art, and works beautifully with the storyline and the characters.

Through it all runs the theme of intimate experience and broader social conditions, particularly for women.  “Unterzakhn” is Yiddish for “underthings,” and Corman uses it as a metaphor and as a motif throughout the book.

Even now, nearly a month after I read it, I find myself recalling the vivid images.  Corman is brilliant at facial expressions and the use of black panels, as well as panels with no dialogue.  I also find myself recalling the more emotionally affecting parts of the story–Esther and Fanya’s experiences and struggles will stay with you.

If you enjoyed Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, give this one a look.  The coming-of-age aspect of the story, and the protagonists, might appeal to you.


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