Book Review

This Rebel Heart

This Rebel Heart

  • Author: Katherine Locke
  • Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
  • Publication Date: April 5, 2022
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, trauma, grief, torture, antisemitism, violence, blood

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A tale set amid the 1956 Hungarian revolution in post-WWII Communist Budapest.

In the middle of Budapest, there is a river. Csilla knows the river is magic. During WWII, the river kept her family safe when they needed it most–safe from the Holocaust. But that was before the Communists seized power. Before her parents were murdered by the Soviet police. Before Csilla knew things about her father’s legacy that she wishes she could forget.

Now Csilla keeps her head down, planning her escape from this country that has never loved her the way she loves it. But her carefully laid plans fall to pieces when her parents are unexpectedly, publicly exonerated. As the protests in other countries spur talk of a larger revolution in Hungary, Csilla must decide if she believes in the promise and magic of her deeply flawed country enough to risk her life to help save it, or if she should let it burn to the ground.

This book came to my attention through some bookstagrammers highlighting upcoming Jewish releases, and I knew right away that I had to read this book. I had some high hopes for this book, and whoooooooo boy, the actual book left my expectations far behind. Yeah, it was that good.

I’ve really been digging historical fiction lately. This book manages to combine the most amazing historical fiction about a period that I know absolutely nothing about, amazing aspects of fantasy and Jewish folklore, as well as LGBTQ representation and no shortage of Jewish representation.

Csilla is a young Jewish woman who has survived the Holocaust, lives under Soviet rule in Hungary, and experienced enormous suffering for someone so young. Four years after her parents were executed by the Soviet police, they are publicly exonerated, which throws her carefully constructed secret plans to leave Hungary into chaos. And the way the author manages to put Csilla’s pain into words is absolutely amazing, yet hauntingly beautiful. She confronts the long history of antisemitism that Jews in Hungary (and other areas of the world), as well as how it continues to linger and impact so many areas of daily life.

“She didn’t know how to walk on the same places where people she’d loved had suffered and died, where people she’d never known and never would know had suffered and died. She didn’t know how to stay in the present and love the feeling of the sun on her face and at the same time hold the knowledge that someone else had suffered here with the sun on their face. She did not know how to remember and move on at the same time.”

Growing up as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve seen that firsthand — the way people want to be able to move on, but also feel immense pressure to remember and bear witness, yet without allowing those memories and emotions to bog them down. Unlike many who chose to leave, Csilla’s parents chose to stay in their city, even though it didn’t always love them the way they loved it. But now that her parents were dead, Csilla and her aunt make the difficult choice to escape. Until everything changes.

“It stung to consider leaving Budapest, where her family had lived for hundreds of years. It burned to consider staying in Budapest, where her family had died for hundreds of years.”

Csilla’s opposing thoughts and feelings are clear throughout the story. Her parents had opposing views on things as well — her father was a revolutionary who worked to create change in Hungary, even if he didn’t always do the right thing, while her mother was a devout woman who only wanted to escape and lead a different life. Csilla is torn between both of these ideals, and it’s hard not to empathize with her character. She’s broken and hurt and scared, and living under an oppressive rule that crushes any opposition swiftly and brutally. But she also has so much loyalty to her city and wants to do whatever is best for everyone. Her own experiences have taught her that the government doesn’t always act in the best interests of the people they rule.

“A great number of things that were terrible were legal, and a great number of things that were fine were illegal. She knew, being a Jew, that governments were not always the wisest of voices as to who was worthy of her respect and who was not, who deserved humanity and who did not.”

There’s so much tension throughout the book. I loved how Csilla’s trauma is explored in her thoughts and actions, and the way that she relates to the people in her life. This story takes us through the steps towards revolution, and for a lot of the story, it felt like there was a pot getting ready to boil over. I was absolutely transfixed by this story, and the characters in it.

A lot of the fantasy elements come from Jewish folklore, and there are Jewish themes running boldly throughout the story. I loved how Jewish practices were portrayed as important to maintain, despite government pressure against practicing. Csilla and her aunt are forced to practice in secret, but cling to their heritage with both hands. This book offered me a new perspective to understand, with the Jewish characters being portrayed as wise, resilient, and strong fighters, even though they have been through so much trauma. But the non-Jewish characters show a willingness to accept Csilla for who she is, although antisemitism is ingrained in society. 

“Antisemitism formed everything around her. She was used to knowing that the people around her would rather that she was dead, and if they didn’t do it themselves, they wouldn’t stop someone else from doing it. It was part of being a Jew in Europe, her mother said. It was like that before the war, and it’d be like that for all of time. She was not used to someone recognizing her Jewishness and not hating her for it.”

This book is an absolute standout in a crop of recent releases. I fell in love with the story, the characters, and the beautiful writing. It’s rare that a book gives me actual chills, but this one managed it. So it’s definitely going to be at the very top of my list of books to recommend to everyone and anyone. Because I literally just want to shout from the rooftops about this magnificent piece of literature.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 7

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