Books We Can’t Quit: Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War, by Magda Denes


W.W. Norton & Company
384 pages

Review by Désirée Zamorano

The Girl Who Lived

Nearly twenty years ago I picked up Castles Burning, A Child’s Life in War. It seared me as I read it; I did not put it down until I had finished it. Since then, each time I hear of war in the world, whether in Syria or the Ukraine, the Boko Haram or Iraq, I think of it again.
In the opening paragraph Magda Denes recounts how she as a small child begged for stories from her older brother, Ivan, stories they both loved: “The tales were always intrinsically just. They progressed from peril to joy; they spoke of an ordinary predictable world, where the virtuous were rewarded and the wicked were punished…Losses were restored and the near dead revived. Lack of caution was not a fatal error.” The author has announced precisely what this tale will not be.

Magda Denes’s ferociously unsentimental memoir starts in prewar Budapest in a Hungarian family of nearly aristocratic proportions. Within pages we watch the secular Jewish family move swiftly from a household of more servants than family members to the impoverished tenement apartment of Magda’s begrudging grandparents. The reason for this sudden change of lifestyle? The father sold all of their possessions to pay debts, buy 12 suits, 45 shirts, as well as first class passage for himself, and himself alone, to flee to America. From this first abandonment, our hearts are with this little girl. Continue reading