Hoo boy. What a ride this book is. It was originally published in 1987 in Hungary, but came out in English in the U.S. last year. On the surface, it's a simple little story. The narrator is an educated intellectual, a writer (although she doesn't really tell us what she writes, except for occasionally referring to a novel or movie). She and her husband have moved into an apartment and are looking for a housekeeper. They're told to check with Emerence, an older woman who's been running the neighborhood for years. But Emerence makes it clear that it's not up to them to hire her--she will decide if she wants to work for them.
She decides she will work for the writer and her husband, even though she herself is practically illiterate and scorns people who don't do hard physical labor. She's also at odds over the writer's religious beliefs, she's foul-mouthed, she works her own schedule which can involve any time of night or day--after a while you have to wonder why the writer keeps her on. But she does; first, because Emerence is an excellent worker who takes huge pride in her work. And, slowly, a relationship begins to build between them, fraught as it is.
The arrival of an abandoned dog (one of the most interesting characters in the book, and that's saying something) cements that relationship further. Emerence not only cares for the dog (albeit harshly at times), she communicates with it in an uncanny way.
But Emerence has secrets of her own. She won't allow anyone into her home, hasn't for years, which leads to speculation (this is set in some post-WWII time frame) that perhaps she's squirreled away treasures taken from Jews during the war.
I suspect I missed some things due to lack of knowledge of Hungarian politics, but it didn't matter. There was plenty going on here in terms of class, friendship, pride, and women, and none of it sugarcoated. The writer makes for a somewhat mysterious (and potentially unreliable) narrator. Her work apparently has some kind of political bent, and she touches lightly on not having her work be successful for political reasons for several years. But when politics free her up to be read and successful, the timing couldn't be worse--Emerence is careening downhill, physically and emotionally.
It's a hard-to-describe book. But I loved it. Bless you, New York Review of Books, for bringing it over here.