A Novella by Daniel Torday
2012 / 177 Pages
Stacked with an overabundance of concise, beautiful language which is delicately wielded to construct a truly awe inspiring story, Daniel Torday’s award-winning debut novella The Sensualist tells the coming of age tale of a Jewish high school student growing up in suburbs of 1990s Baltimore.
Samuel Gerson seems to be living a fairly good life. He comes from a good home, he’s a straight A student, and he’s blessed with the powerful throwing arm of an above average baseball pitcher. His life is fairly uncomplicated. That is until he meets Dmitri Zilber in gym class one afternoon. Almost immediately, Samuel is captivated by the Russian emigrant’s brash, outspoken, no-nonsense approach to life. The boy is everything Samuel isn’t, and quite frankly, possesses pieces of who he wishes he could be. The two quickly become friends.
Dmitri, also an A student, but from a much poorer home, is the story’s self-proclaimed sensualist:
“Like in Dostoyevsky!” Dmitri said, as if by saying it louder he might make me admit to having read it. “Like Prince Myshkin or Dmitri Karamazov. I don’t care what people think of me. I say what I feel, when I feel it, and do what I like when I like. Also, Dmitri Karamazov is who my father names me after. Sometimes my mother calls me ‘Mitya,’ though I do not like it if she does it. Is better she calls me Dmitri.”
It’s a refreshing attitude to possess, but in the world of high school, where young men and woman are forced to conform in order to survive their daily routine of classroom captivity, it will ultimately become Dmitri’s undoing.
The trouble starts when Samuel begins what he believes to be a meaningful relationship with Dmitri’s sister Yelizaveta, a beautiful, elusive girl with an uncanny knack for using her God given gifts to manipulate those around her into catering to her every desire. Samuel’s not the only boy she’s got her eye on, and when he finds out, things take a dramatic turn.
Running parallel, yet underneath the current day situation, are the fascinating WWII survival tales told by each boy’s grandfather. Samuel’s spent time in a Hungarian concentration camp while Dmitri’s was sent to a forced labor camp in Russia. Both men experienced the humiliation of living through captivity and both were forever changed by it in different ways.
As Samuel continues to push on the boundaries of youth in order to determine where his childhood ends and adulthood begins, things start to unravel around him on all sides.
What does it mean to be a man of conviction and what does it ultimately earn you? Can someone armed with the unwavering belief in telling the truth survive and prosper in today’s America? Is it okay to feel and express emotion in world that expects you to remain indifferent at all times? How big of a role does social class play in determining who we will ultimately become?
Daniel Torday deftly explores the answers to the questions as a writer who genuinely cares about what the answers are. That’s exactly why his novella works, and that’s also why it’s so deeply affecting.