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Arts & Culture

Leela Corman: Unterzakhn

Graphic novel traces two sisters' diverging courses through early 20th-century New York

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Unterzakhn is ultimately a captivating story, due largely to the depth of Esther and Fanya. Though outwardly different, their lives are tragic in surprisingly similar ways: Both grew up sooner than they should have, both have warped relationships with men and sex, both have seen far too much of humanity's underbelly. And the crumbling of their once beautiful sisterhood is deeply felt, especially when Fanya, once considered the righteous sister, must come to Esther for help, for while Fanya slowly falls into self-destruction, Esther learns to transform her destructive childhood into a successful and self-expressive career.

The book is sweetly sad, illustrating the difficulty of life in the early 20th century as seen through the narrow eye of a specific subculture. Corman exposes many of the difficulties facing Jews at the time, and a chapter dedicated to the girls' father's survival of a Russian pogrom is particularly devastating. Corman never shies away from harshness in either her story or her illustrations, but she handles it with grace, despite the curse words, exposed body parts and sex scenes that dominate the book. Unterzakhn is a quick read, but a meaningful one, and is yet another tick mark on Corman's long list of successes.


by Leela Corman
Schocken Books, 208 pages

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