Ayelet Waldman’s “Love and Treasure” opens with a grim, fantastical image that seems lifted from some perverted children’s story: a train of more than 40 boxcars filled with household goods — carpets, linens, cameras, dishes, paintings, vases, radios, watches, purses, teapots, candlesticks and much more.
Waldman is a wonderfully imaginative writer, but she’s drawn the central event of her absorbing new novel directly from history. The Hungarian Gold Train, as it came to be called, carried a trove of stolen goods worth millions of dollars.
This could not have been easy or comfortable for Waldman to write. The incalculable sin committed against those millions of people naturally encourages a kind of reverence that’s antithetical to the moral complexity of good fiction, but of course even the victims and saviors were real, which is to say, complicated people with motives of every hue.
Waldman’s triumph here is her ability to dramatize these challenges to Jack’s naivete with a tense and romantic story that never seems polemical or overdetermined. “You, my friend, have the luxury of a sensitive stomach,” a Zionist soldier tells Jack. “We in the Yishuv can afford no such delicacy.” And in a sense, neither can the good novelist.