Jonathan Lethem - Dissident Gardens (5 stars)

Lethem's wonderful novel makes a bittersweet attempt to reclaim political faith in a cynical age

Jonathan Lethem - Dissident Gardens


This wonderful novel revolves around the relationship between Rose Zimmer, a communist of the pre- and post-war years who is angry that the 20th century has ‘ripped her off’, and her daughter Miriam, who feels like she has ‘older-sistered’ the 1960s counterculture. Lethem’s vivid, imagistic prose is a paean less to the American Communist Party itself than to the possibility of belief in it held by the immigrant workers from Eastern Europe, Russia, Ireland and beyond who came to New York in the first part of the century. He shifts the turning point of post-war American history back nearly a decade, placing it not in the 1960s, as so many other stories do, but on 5 June 1956 – the day the New York Times reported Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ which revealed Stalin’s crimes – and the disillusions of the American left that followed.

It is in many ways a mournful book, with Rose’s rage and disappointment released in unstoppable rants, and a book that asks what people do when their beliefs have been shattered but they can’t let go. Thankfully, it is also wryly funny, particularly when Lethem voices both mother and daughter’s withering assessments of the arrogant and misguided men in their lives.

Dissident Gardens is ultimately a hopeful book, and although the need to resuscitate old slogans reveals the state of their disrepair, Lethem finds beauty in the bittersweet attempt to reclaim political faith in a cynical age: ‘we believed, and that in itself is worth remembering’

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