Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

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A mesmerizing, heartbreaking graphic novel of immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of twin sisters whose lives take radically and tragically different paths.

For six-year-old Esther and Fanya, the teeming streets of New York’s Lower East Side circa 1910 are both a fascinating playground and a place where life’s lessons are learned quickly and often cruelly. In drawings that capture both the tumult and the telling details of that street life, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “Underthings”) tells the story of these sisters: as wide-eyed little girls absorbing the sights and sounds of a neighborhood of struggling immigrants; as teenagers taking their own tentative steps into the wider world (Esther working for a woman who runs both a burlesque theater and a whorehouse, Fanya for an obstetrician who also performs illegal abortions); and, finally, as adults battling for their own piece of the “golden land,” where the difference between just barely surviving and triumphantly succeeding involves, for each of them, painful decisions that will have unavoidably tragic repercussions.

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Praise for Unterzakhn:

“Historically informed and aesthetically compelling . . . Heavily inked cartoons beautifully depict period details and the Hester Street gossips as times evolve, and show how the two sisters’ similarities change into stark differences in appearance as they age. The text, salted with Yiddish, and the eloquently detailed images meld together to make this a good choice for readers who enjoyed Eleanor Widmer’s Up from Orchard Street or Hubert and Kerascoet’s Miss Don’t Touch Me.”

“Set in New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Unterzakhn follows the lives of two sisters, Fanya and Esther . . . Corman gracefully traces both young women’s efforts to maintain control of their bodies in an unpredictable and at times violent world. She steeps her striking black-and-white artwork with period details, particularly in the clothes and the bustling street scenes. In a flashback scene set in Russia, especially, she echoes the swirling evocative style of Russian folk art . . . The story of Fanya and Esther’s struggles is beautifully drawn and hard to forget.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Lures you in with wittiness and sensuality . . . then bites you in the tuchus! Unterzakhn swirls with the energy of Almodóvar and the depth of Dostoyevsky as it follows the fates of two charmingly complicated twin sisters. I loved it.”
—Craig Thompson, author of Habibi