As it’s namesake composition suggests, The Fugue tells its story in many voices. Author Gint Aras sketches the lives of two families, two priests, a young musician and her aunt as they carve out a life between Ukraine and Cicero. Over five decades, the reader hears these voices compliment and contradict one other, harmonize for a moment, and diverge into private suffering. Themes of secrecy and betrayal echo through the generations of the Dilienko and the Jorgensen families, bouncing off the walls of their city apartments and their church confessionals.
The saga begins in the newly freed hands of Yuri Dilienko, who has found himself fresh out of a jail stint on the corner of 14th and 50th Court. His own story began three decades ago, in the home of Ukrainian immigrant, Bronza Dilienko, and his troubled wife, Gaja. Her story began long before that, under a dark cloud that hovers over the miles and years, keeping things hidden in its long, cold shadow.
We quickly meet Aunt Sonia and Lita in 1994. As devices, they help us glimpse an emerging Cicero, where the rolling r’s of Latino neighbors have joined the chorus of Eastern European languages. As a character, the gentle and curious Lita has been through some trauma of her own in only a few short years. Although at first she finds the quiet scrap-collector a bit strange, eventually she knows Yuri to be a kindred spirit, and a fluent speaker of the artistic language she wants to learn.
The story then makes the first of many loops back into the past, a minefield of untold truths waiting to explode. We see that a gulf is widening between uncle Benny and his niece Gaja, as he strains to keep her close while protecting her from what she might not want to know about the family. Dutiful Alina tends to her brilliant and troubled father, the composer Lars, while Monsignor Kilba reassures a young confessor with a warped sense of guilt and responsibility.
As the neighborhood priests and guardians of the confessional, Monsignor Kilba and Fr. Cruz bear the weight of community secrets and face the tough decisions to keep quiet or intervene. It is especially fitting for this slow-burner that several chapters take place during Advent, a time in the church calendar full of preparation and anticipation. Hidden truths surface and sink as time passes, and not everyone can withstand the uncertainty. I was riveted in particular by a conversation between Bronza and Lars—when you get to it, you’ll know.
The words “family saga” evoke such a messy tangle, but Aras writes with great technical skill even in the emotional weeds. The natural, sharp dialogue makes it compelling and easy to follow the twists and turns from one family to another over time. The characters seemed autonomous and real, I was curious about their motives and fearful of the risks they took. The chapters vary in length from one to the next, some stretching on for days and others for just a snapshot of an afternoon. Together, these elements a nearly 500 page book feel roomy instead of long, with time for the characters to unfold at their own pace.
What insights The Fugue may hold about the immigrant experience come not from bold generalizations, but from the daily grind of cross-cultural life. The abrupt shift in tone between a chapter set in 1940s Ukraine and 1990s Cicero makes you wonder what it feels like for one person to hold both of those worlds. Another chapter finds Anya before her mother’s diaries and not knowing a word of Russian, unable to read a single entry. And in Gaja and Benny, we feel the brutal truth that no matter how light we pack, we cannot leave our selves behind when we travel.
Throughout the grit, I found an alluring almost magical-realism scattered throughout the book. Take the strange stoicism of confession, a compulsive activity for Gaja. It’s also there in the mysterious affliction that claims the memory of one character, and in the small, dark wooden statues that seem to haunt their creator.
More than anywhere else, I heard it in Yuri, Lars, and even Lita’s exquisite experiences with music or sculpture. Aras puts into words precisely what is most difficult to say about the way a tune meanders and rises above the silence, and eventually dives back down. Indeed, whether its the visual negative space or the pause after a few bars. Mortality looms large as the young characters grow and the old ones age with the neighborhood. By the end, those who are left must make peace with both the secrets they kept, and the ones they will never understand.