It’s 1943, the Second World War is underway and Hungary has had an uneasy relationship with Germany since entering the war in June 1941 to assist the Axis powers. In 1944 Germany decides to occupy Hungary because independent attempts have been made to negotiate an armistice with the UK and the USA. From the occupation Jewish people are in danger, and soon after the Hungarian army is defeated by the Red Army.
It is against this backdrop that Abigail takes place. Georgina is a spoiled young daughter of an army general, and has no idea about the danger she is in, nor about the decisions that are made to keep her safe. She is sent to a prison-like strict boarding school for girls. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is for her protection. What I liked about this book is that the story began about the girl, but gradually widened to consider the individual in the war in Hungary.
This is a long book, almost 450 pages, and it begins with Georgina and takes its time to unfold the full implications of her situation. At first it is about her separation in 1943 from her beloved father in Budapest as she goes to boarding school, Matula, a long way away. How will she survive the separation? And will she fit in with the other girls? The girls in her class have very strong bonds of loyalty and two of them explain the rules and the restrictions. They also introduce her to the story of Abigail, a statue which is reputed to provide answers to difficult questions that are placed in the pitcher she holds.
Soon after her arrival Georgina betrays one of the secrets of her class that provide respite from the very strict regime of the school. From this point the girls refuse to speak to her. The school has very strict Protestant rules (she describes it as Calvinist) and she breaks these too: she has personal possessions, for example, and then she tries to escape. She manages to make it up with the other girls and the story moves into its last phase.
Hungary is in danger of being defeated in the war. Georgina’s father, the General, heads an anti-Nazi underground movement. He has placed Gina in Matula for her protection, as he fears she will be used against him if the plot is discovered. It turns out that the Gina’s guardian angel is Abigail and that the local dissident (anti-war, anti-Nazi) are the same person and that with a network of local people Gina is saved when her father is arrested. The finale is exciting as the conspirators evade the searchers.
The story is told in great detail, the uniform, the rules, the teachers, the rituals etc. Each part of the story is built gradually. Occasionally plot details are trailed. ‘She had no idea that she would never see him again’ (269). It was Bánki’s present that led to the unravelling of Gina’s hiding place.
A great number of things happened on that late November morning but it was only much later that she saw the connection between them. Every episode or image associated with that Wednesday fused in her mind – the gaping mouths of the dead fish, the filing cabinet standing open, the glazier’s assistant with his huge moustache, and the General. (257)
For some time we believe the mystery is to uncover the identity of Abigail, the person behind the statue. And like Gina, it is only later that readers can connect her to the smashed aquarium, the missing files and the other events of that morning.
Gina changes from being a spoiled little rich girl to a resourceful and determined (yet opinionated) daughter of a General. While she is unwise, young, selfish, the reader still has sympathy for her in her various predicaments. One can admire her pride, her loyalty and her ingenuity. And in the end she has joined the network of people protecting what they can of Hungary. It is a long book but a gripping story.
The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Later she published several novels which won her great acclaim, the first was Katalin Street in 1969. It was The Door that brought her international success.
The Door by Magda Szabo (1987), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in English in 2005. This was the 22nd in the OLDER WOMEN in fiction series, and you can read about it here.
Abigail by Magda Szabó first published in 1970 and in English translation by Macelhose Press in 2020. 442pp
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Some recent blog reviews:
A Life in Books included her review on 10th January this year.
HeavenAli published a review on 31st January.