A ghost wife, a stolen child, wandering eyes, hidden ledgers—and more—bind the 19th-century Jewish community on a paradisiacal island in the West Indies.
To this marvelous mise-en-scène, Hoffman (The Museum of Extraordinary Things, 2014, etc.) adds a historical character: Rachel Manzana Pomié, the Creole mother of impressionist painter Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro. Descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who “knew when to depart even when it meant leaving worldly goods behind,” Hoffman’s Rachel nurses a grudge as bitter as the fruit of the apple tree her grandparents toted to the Antilles when they fled France: that her mother, Mme. Pomié, favors the nephew she adopted as a baby over her own child. “Girls were not worth very much in her eyes, especially a disobedient girl.” With her friend Jestine—the mixed-blood child of the family cook—Rachel keeps a lookout for turtle girls (mermaids with shells) and, aping the French fabulist Charles Perrault, chats up the market women for “small miracles common only in our country” to tell when she finally gets to Paris. “My mother didn’t like this sort of talk; people of our faith didn’t believe in past lives or spirits.” Faith leaves Rachel as well when her father arranges a match to a business associate twice her age, who dies, trapping her on the island with seven children; she’s shunned by her synagogue when she falls into bed with a young relative of her late husband who arrives from Paris to settle the books: “The good man and the enchantress. Some people said I was made of molasses; one bite and you couldn’t get enough.” Wearing “haint blue” to chase ghosts won’t bring back the luck she gave away to her old friend Jestine when she needed it. But her youngest, Jacobo, whose sketches and open manner charm even tight-lipped members of the synagogue’s sisterhood, just might.
Lilting prose, beautifully meted out folklore and historical references, and Hoffman’s deep conviction in her characters (especially those “willing to do anything for love”) make reading this “contes du temps passé” a total pleasure.