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It may seem counter-intuitive to turn to a saga about a Swiss-German Jewish family for some light relief. The Meijer family in Charles Lewinsky’s stunning Melnitz (Atlantic, £17.99) face more than their fair share of misery. But Lewinsky’s book gives equal weight to humanity’s better qualities of love and laughter. Frailties deserve compassion, not censure.

It begins with cattle dealer Solomon Meijer, his wife and two daughters, one of whom is adopted. One night, a distant cousin, Janki, arrives on the doorstep, dressed in a tattered uniform and begging for refuge. Melnitz, newly translated from the German, follows the fortunes of the family through five generations from the 1870s to the Second World War. Dead Great-Uncle Melnitz haunts the pages, a post-modern presence who reminds his ancestors that Jews can never be complacent in a gentile world. “’Sometimes they shout,’ he said, ‘and sometimes they whisper. Sometimes they are silent for a long time, and you think they’ve forgotten us. But they don’t forget us. Believe me, Janki. They don’t forget us.’”