A ragged Hungarian boy knocks on the door of Jozef Vinich. It’s 1933. The setting a 2,000-acre farm in Dardan, Pennsylvania. The unexpected visit begins this new novel with history and fate. The boy is Bexhet Konar. Jozef saved his life at the end of World War I, when Jozef was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army – to be exact, a sharpshooter in the Italian Alps. The year was 1919, when Bexhet’s mother died in childbirth. Jozef, in desperate circumstances, carried the newborn baby to her Romani people in Eastern Hungary. Now, 14 years later, the boy’s grandfather has sent him to Jozef to keep him safe from the fascists who are persecuting the Romani.
We’re not given the story chronologically. The plot jumps back and forth among decades, illustrating with stylistic aplomb how war threads through this family’s heritage. It’s a story of an unshakable belonging that arises from experience that binds the heart even more than family.
Bexhet embraces Jozef’s farm life and marries his daughter Hannah. When it’s 1941, he joins American military intelligence in England, translating interrogations of captured German officers. In a piercing scene, one of those officers tells Bexhet with sneering pomposity that he himself had seen to the killing of the Romani. Bexhet reacts by transferring himself into combat with the 28th Infantry Division from Pennsylvania. In the brutal Ardennes conflict, he’s separated from his American troop and becomes a resistance fighter with the Romani.
Author Andrew Krivak’s alluring storytelling stays outside the horror of battle and instead leans into the indelible bond between Bexhet and the Lovari Roma who raised him. It’s a narrative feat of nuanced action and spiritual influence in what becomes the best part of the book.
Next the story jumps to Sam Konar, Bexhet and Hannah’s son. It’s 1973. Sam returns to the family in Pennsylvania after long years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. This part of the novel lacks the haunting grip of Jozef and Bexhet’s connection to the past, but it remains powerful, and by that I mean it’s tightly drawn with extreme events, including Sam’s POW experience and his recovery from a heroin addiction. He’s ultimately saved by a soldier from his platoon who never gave up on him. Years later, Sam shares this story with his son, who’s a U.S. Marine.
Like the Appearance of Horses is the culminating book in Mr. Krivak’s Dardan Trilogy. You don’t need to have read the first two books. This third novel is free standing, forceful and absorbing in its own right. It ends, fittingly, with Hannah who opens the book, an 11-year-old girl watching the Hungarian boy knock on the door. Now dying, Hannah sees her husband at the foot of her bed, although Bexhet died long ago. It’s Christmas day 2004. She tells him what’s happened to their grandson based in Afghanistan, the boy who followed in the steps of his father Sam, his grandfather Bexhet, and his great-grandfather Jozef.
Like the Appearance of Horses is published by Bellevue Literary Press. A version of this review was recorded for broadcast on central Ohio’s NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.