Thought-provoking and disturbing, Unterzakhn shows us the lives and options available to young Jewish girls in an early 1900s New York slum. Although the twins look identical, Fanya is considered the smart one, and so she begins helping a “lady doctor”. This bitter woman helps others deal with unwanted pregnancies during an era when birth control was illegal and a homemade abortion risked killing you. The doctor also teaches Fanya to read, a skill she’s not otherwise thought to need.
Esther, fascinated by the costumes and makeup of the fancy ladies who visit their mother’s corset shop, winds up cleaning for the dancers at the “theater” (the front for a whorehouse). Esther sees the first part of the sex act, Fanya the aftermath, and it shapes both girls’ lives in twisted ways. (The title is Yiddish for “underthings”.)
Leela Corman’s caricatures are striking and distinctive, making the exaggerated characters come alive, and she provides a great, detailed view of the times. Her unique style, with its curved lines, is well-suited to a story focusing on a variety of women’s bodies and the limited options available to them. The girls struggle to be more than their mother’s helpers, a boy’s plaything, a wife responsible for a gaggle of brats.
Corman does an excellent job dropping the reader into this particular time and place, especially with her frequent use of Yiddish. The many words aren’t translated, but they’re clear from context. By being slightly uncertain just what’s being discussed, the reader is put in the girls’ place when it comes to hearing the adults talk about matters relating to sex. Although a period piece, the underlying concerns, especially those related to a woman’s control of her own body, remain particularly timely.