To Be a Man

Nicole Krauss

Bloomsbury, £16.99

The title story in American novelist Nicole Krauss’s first collection of short stories covers many of the themes found throughout these tales. To Be a Man opens with a woman contemplating her father on a summer’s day when her young sons are frolicking by the water.

Soon after she is in Berlin with her lover, “the German Boxer”. He is truthful enough to recognise he is the sort of man the Nazis would have recruited, and cannot say for certain he would not have joined them.

“Whoever he’d have been back then does not exist,” she tells herself, and yet she broods that in another era he might have been one of the murderers from whom her grandparents fled. A little later she is in Israel, with a childhood friend, a dancer who had joined the elite special forces when he enlisted as an 18-year-old: “To become a man in his country was to become a soldier”.

Krauss’s four acclaimed novels have earned her a reputation as a perceptive, unflinching observer of relationships between children and parents, husbands and wives, and those born Jewish in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Her last novel, Forest Dark, was widely believed to describe the breakdown of her marriage to fellow writer Jonathan Safran Foer, and in To Be A Man there is a sophisticated interleaving of autobiographical elements with abstract reflections.

All these stories are coloured by versions of masculinity that range from macho to motherly. In one, a gay couple hover by the incubator of their surrogate baby as he teeters on the brink of life.

Titled The Husband, this is a moving yet amusing account of an elderly Israeli woman taking a stranger into her life as eagerly as the couple embrace their long-awaited child.

There is an almost mystic tone to the arrival of these newcomers, in a witty and heart-wringing tale that showcases Krauss’s storytelling panache.

Humour runs though the work, a welcome counterpart to its intensity. Loss is prevalent, by death, divorce, or the dislocation of characters torn between Israel and the USA.

Being single or contemplating separation is a refrain, while Jewishness pervades everything.

Not that these characters are devout, but they have been shaped wholly by their upbringing.

One of the least successful of the collection, Amour, reads more like a theory of coupledom than a rounded story. In it, the narrator meets a long-forgotten friend in a refugee camp, who recalls her former partner.

There was no mystery as to why these New Yorkers gravitated towards each other: “they’d come down from more or less the same number of Holocaust survivors, had more or less the same number of relatives in Israel ... each had been raised with the same death-penalty prohibition against marrying a goy, or failing in any way.”

Krauss’s prose can be visceral, her characters’ needs played out in scenes of distilled emotion, often during sex.

Desire and the risk it brings – the ever-present threat of violence – is explored almost matter-of-factly.

In the opening story, Switzerland, a teenager toys with her power over men in a dangerous liaison with a banker.

Narrated by a fellow schoolgirl, this portrait of young women discovering their capabilities and vulnerabilities is drawn with unsettling honesty.

At times, Krauss’s writing is so plain it is flat-footed. She also has a tendency to editorialise. Sometimes, however, a single sentence says it all: “The sky turns colours that seem to reflect the peculiar ache of being alive at that hour.”

When a daughter and mother reflects that life “is always happening on so many levels, all at the same time”, you realise it is this overwhelming fact that Krauss is trying to capture.