Dark humor

Demonstrating the inevitably autobiographical base of fiction, Albert makes use of her own reactions to the death of her brother.

Elisa Albert 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Elisa Albert 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Book of Dahlia By Elisa Albert Free Press 276 Pages $23 To coincide with the release of Elisa Albert's debut novel, The Book of Dahlia, the Free Press has issued a paperback edition of How This Night Is Different, a collection of 10 of her short stories, originally published in 2006. These two books signal the advent of an important new Jewish writer who is just 30 years old, just one year older than her protagonist in The Book of Dahlia. Albert uses black humor to describe what happens to Dahlia Finger when she is diagnosed as having terminal cancer. Demonstrating the inevitably autobiographical base of fiction, Albert makes use of her own reactions to the death of her brother who died of cancer at 25 when she was 20. In some measure, Dahlia's problematic life has some approximations to that of Albert. With a master's degree from Columbia, Albert teaches there as an adjunct assistant professor. Her marriage in 2003 lasted just one year. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she attended day school and Hebrew high school, and spent at least one summer at Camp Ramah. Her parents' marriage ended in divorce. Albert's experiences and her equivocal attitudes toward her Jewish identity are reflected in both books but, perhaps more clearly in the collection of short stories. In the final one, "Etta, or Bessie or Dora or Rose," Albert writes a letter to Philip Roth and abandons any effort to disguise herself by signing the letter with her own name. Whether or not the letter was sent remains a question. In it, she comments on Roth's work and says that she would like to have a child by him. The other stories deal with Jewish subjects, beginning with one that focuses on a brit and the mother's reaction. The stories are sometimes coarse and salacious but always contain astute and entertaining wit. While levity is also introduced into The Book of Dahlia, readers are always aware of the inevitably fatal conclusion. Nevertheless, there is a touch of humor as Dahlia sits in the Venice, California, cottage purchased for her by her indulgent father. She smokes pot, watches old movies and reviews her life. Experiences in Israel which was her mother's home, and a troubled relationship with her brother, now a rabbi, are relentlessly scrutinized, always with recognition of their comic absurdity as she approaches the end of her life. This unusual novel is a major achievement. It is filled with heartache, anguish and hilarity as it squarely confronts the end of life. Elisa Albert is surely at the beginning of what promises to be a substantial career as a significant Jewish writer. The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.