fiction · historical fiction

Book Review: The Third Daughter by Talia Carner

I belong to a few different book groups on Facebook. I’m not hugely active in any of them, but it’s always interesting to see what everyone’s reading and what they think about it as I scroll through my feed (although, annoyingly, there’s a lot of, “Has anyone else read fill-in-the-blank-with-this-New-York-Times bestseller???” and a weird amount of apron-string-strangling posts like “Is Great Expectations an appropriate read for my 17-year-old son?” ARE. YOU. SERIOUS.). A few weeks ago, someone in my Jewish women’s book group mentioned how much she was enjoying The Third Daughter by Talia Carner (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2019), so I looked it up, and whoa. Historical fiction about a period of Jewish history I had never heard of. Onto my TBR it went.

1890s Russia. Life is bleak for Jewish peasants. Pogroms are raging, poverty is rampant, hunger is the norm. Batya and her family are barely managing to eke out the most meager of livings when a rich Jewish man appears in town, offering marriage and a better way of life for the whole family. Though Batya is only fourteen, her parents agree to send her off to America with him, and that’s when the nightmare begins. This man is not a potential husband, but a pimp running a brothel in Buenos Aires, where prostitution is legal and young Jewish girls are trafficked in unimaginable conditions thanks to a Jewish crime ring known as Zwi Migdal.

Batya learns to cope with her life of being trafficked, depending on the support of the girls who live in the brothel with her, but she never loses the spark of what makes her her, and when the opportunity comes to take Zwi Migdal down, she warily agrees, on the condition that she finally get her family out of Russia.

This book obviously comes with many, many content warnings. Rape features heavily throughout this story, as do the various consequences of being trafficked in the 1890s. This is emotionally a very heavy book, so if you’re already dealing with a lot and can’t handle more, be kind to yourself and put this book off until you’re able to manage.

I knew nothing about this period of history prior to picking up this book; I hadn’t known that Buenos Aires was a hotbed of human trafficking, nor had I ever heard of Zwi Migdal. What a horrifying, soul-crushing nightmare the lives of these young women turned into. Their lives were constantly at risk from disease and murder (from their pimps, from their clients) and death due to being thrown out on the streets. After they’d outlived their usefulness to the brothel, there was nowhere else for them to go; even their own community misunderstood what was happening to them and refused them any sort of help or support. Devastation abounded for these women, and the best most of them could hope for was to be kept as someone’s mistress on the side, thus freeing them from a lifetime of forced prostitution to a parade of men.

Batya is a strong character. She’s far from perfect; she develops a tough exterior in order to survive, and this doesn’t always serve her well, but it keeps her adapting and alive. The conditions Ms. Carner describes are deplorable and frightening. While historical fiction often suffers from a sort of literary distance, the writing in this book keeps it feeling immediate and urgent. You’ll fly through the pages, desperate for some sort of positive resolution, because for anyone to live like this otherwise is unthinkable. That this story is based on the real lives of thousands of young girls is utterly heartbreaking.

Although this is an incredibly heavy book, it’s ultimately triumphant, though bittersweet, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s painful, but it’s a story that deserves to be told, read, shared. I’m glad it’s a book I spent time with.

Visit Talia Carner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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