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Today, the Lower East Side is one of the hippest and most thriving areas in New York City. But it has a long history, one that includes a fair share of struggles and hardship. Writer and artist Leela Corman captures some of that, magically and deftly, in Unterzakhn.
The title is the Yiddish word for “underthings,” which is fitting for this tale of two sisters who learn much about the seediness under the surface of life in the Big Apple. We meet the sisters, Esther and Fanya, in 1909, when they are doe-eyed innocent little girls working alongside their seamstress mother and trying to understand the capricious world in which they live.
As the story progresses over the ensuing 200+ pages, we watch their lives grow, change, and adapt to the continuous onslaught of life: poverty, prejudice, discrimination, war, love, and just the simple courageous act of being women trapped in desperate situations.
If the 20th century was indeed the American century, then Unterzakhn presents a feminine allegory for it. These twin sisters, daughters of immigrants who came to America in the hopes of golden opportunities, find reality hits them hard, and often, and it is never easy to pick yourself up. It’s certainly most telling that the two women go into the professions they do: Esther meets a woman named Bronia, who performs illegal abortions and promotes women’s rights. The work doesn’t sit well with everyone, but Esther embraces it. Meanwhile, Fanya grows up too and meets a brothel owner and eventually ends up working there too.
Esther hands out pamphlets telling single women not to get married and married women to withhold sex. As one might imagine, those don’t go over all too well, but they set up one of the many conflicts that unfold throughout the book.
Unterzakhn works on multiple levels (one notable one: the artwork is fantastic, particularly when Corman infuses any of her female characters with a snarl or a sneer, conveying a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a single panel), and as such, it’s highly recommended.

Reviewed by John Hogan on March 24, 2012

by Leela Corman

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2012
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken
  • ISBN-10: 0805242597
  • ISBN-13: 9780805242591