Who doesn’t love a boarding school novel? Especially one written by an author who actually experienced life within a similar one for herself? Hungarians love this book so much, they voted it their third most-beloved novel during the Hungarian Big Read of 2005.
So many YA novels take place in the present. Abigail, by Magda Szabó, is a coming-of-age story about a privileged 14-year-old in Budapest who suddenly finds her life completely upended during WWII. The story is full of suspense as Gina, the female protagonist in the book, adjusts to radically different surroundings.
In Budapest, Gina’s mother was no longer alive but that didn’t mean she was unloved. She had her father, a General in the Hungarian Army who adored her, a French governess, and an aunt who held glittering tea parties that included a particular dashing young lieutenant as a guest.
Wartime removed these supports one-by-one. The French governess has to return to her country. Her father was frequently and understandably absent. Suddenly, he upends Gina’s life without warning by telling her to pack. Gina is unsure of where they are going and he tells her nothing. The boarding school she arrives at could not be more different than life in Budapest, because at this new all-girls boarding school, austere conformity is valued above all else.
The suspense of all that Gina does not know as she leaves Budapest and arrives at her new school makes the book, Abigail, a compelling read. Conversely, Gina, used to a life of getting what she wants, makes impudent decisions throughout the story and the reader can anticipate how badly these decisions will go down in a new setting. Suspense, anticipation and mystery within the text about a statue named Abigail mean that ‘more will be revealed’ all throughout the book.
Magda Szabo’s book is an excellent entry into learning more about the Hungarian experience of World War II, which is not a frequent entry point for English-language readers. It will take librarian and bookseller hand-selling of Abigail to help teenagers discover this title as the cover from New York Review of Books does not communicate to teenage readers that this book is for them.
Abigail, written by Magda Szabó
translated from the Hungarian by Len Dix
published by New York Review of Books Classics
Purchase this book here.
Awards and nominiations:
Another book of Magda Szabó’s featured recently on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative is The Door, also translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix. It was part of #OlderWomenInFiction Month, guest edited by Caroline Lodge. When the 100 Best #WIT (women-in-translation) titles were crowdsourced by #WITMonth founder, Meytal Radzinski, The Door was voted by readers worldwide as #8.
Len Rix is a translator of Hungarian literature into English. He was born in Zimbabwe in 1942, where he studied English, French and Latin at the (then) University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1963 he won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge, where he studied English. He worked as a lecturer at the University of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and subsequently as a teacher of English at Manchester Grammar School (where he was also Head of Careers), before retiring in 2005 to live in Cambridge (source: Wikipedia).
Karen Van Drie is an American expat librarian working and consulting in Istanbul, Turkey. She is Executive Director of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative and served on the 2021 GLLI Translated Young Adult Book Prize jury. She is on Twitter at @worldlibraries. Her personal blog is called Empty Nest Expat. Her current librarian ‘bucket list goal’ that she is working on is reading a book from every country in the world, inspired by Ann Morgan.