Book review - An Exclusive Love By Johanna Adorján

An Exclusive Love is Johanna Adorján's homage to her grandparents, István and Vera, who, on 13 October 1991 committed suicide at their home in Denmark. Hungarian Jews, and survivors of the Holocaust, they were forced to flee their native country with two small children during the uprising of 1956.

By 1991, István is seriously ill and has been given only a few months to live. Vera, in good health herself, decides that life without him would be unbearable. She sets about trying to purchase Final Exit, a guide to committing suicide published in the US. But the book is not yet openly available in Europe and Vera has to persuade a friend to send her a copy.

In an attempt to understand this enigmatic couple's past and their mutual pact, Adorján talks to relatives and friends and sifts through their meagre papers looking for clues. She also visits Mauthausen, the "extermination through labour" camp where István was incarcerated in 1944.

Vera's survival in Budapest is barely touched upon – she had forged papers. István never talked about his time in the camp, and was also unforthcoming about his experiences working as a doctor in the Korean War in 1952. It was during his seven months in Korea, Adorjá* learns, that Vera told a friend she would kill herself if her husband didn't return.

A lot is left to Adorján's imagination, including the couple's final days together, which she tenderly recreates: how they take their beloved dog to a friend, wrap up their family heirlooms as Christmas presents, tend the roses in their garden, and their final meal – weak tea and toast. After their deaths, Adorján discovers a note in her grandmother's hand: "A perfectly normal to-do list for their suicide." But "How do two people feel on their last day alive?"

Adorján suggests that it is Vera's "exclusive love" for István that compels her to want to die with him. It struck me that the fact they "escaped death by the skin of their teeth" 40 years earlier might also have contributed to their desire to choose, of their own free will, the moment, place and method of their death. We shall never know. Yet despite Adorján's admirable research, I couldn't help but feel frustrated that her subjects remain, to the last, just out of reach.

trans. Anthea Bell

pub. Harvill Secker

Originally published in the Independent Friday, 18 March 2011