uth Rothwax is the kind of woman who wears a portable microphone while she jogs so she can record lists of things to do. She sets several alarm clocks to go off at staggered times so she's sure to keep on schedule. She runs a successful New York City business specializing in what else letter writing. It's the perfect profession for someone craving complete order in her life; she gets to organize even the correspondence of strangers.
In Too Many Men, the haunting U.S. debut by best-selling Australian author Lily Brett, Ruth embarks on a trip to Poland with her 81-year-old father, Edek. A Holocaust survivor, Edek is taking his first trip back to the city of Lodz, where he grew up in a wealthy family before they were forced into a Jewish ghetto and ultimately shipped to the Birkenau concentration camp. Growing up with parents who spoke rough English yet refused to teach her Polish, Ruth has never been able to fully understand her parents, her past or, ultimately, herself.
But even she can't control the way the trip unfolds, especially as her father begins to open up about the secrets of his past. As Ruth and Edek visit first his childhood home, then the ghetto and concentration camp, he begins to recount in his broken English the heartbreaking atrocities both he and Ruth's mother suffered at the hands of the Nazis. They are stories Ruth has never heard, and she urgently encourages her aging father to continue talking.
Edek's stories are of such viciousness and hate that one begins to understand Ruth's need for a life of rules and restraint, where she is able to call the shots in a way her parents never could.
In perhaps the book's most agonizing scene, Ruth finds herself desperately trying to recoup the few surviving possessions of Edek's childhood from an anti-Semitic Polish couple. Ruth can only watch as a pricetag is placed on her own history, and she must decide how much it is worth.
Too Many Men manages both humor and searing sadness, sometimes in the same moment. Topping the Australian bestseller lists for more than six months, Brett's imaginative novel is a thoroughly honest account of one family struggling to terms with their haunted past.
Amy Scribner is a writer living in Washington, D.C.