A Russian Jewish woman’s struggles to survive in America, then recapture the past brutally stolen from her, are recorded with eloquent compression in this striking second novel from NBA nominee Bloom (Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, 2002, etc.).
In a brisk narrative of the events of two crowded years (1924-26), we encounter immigrant Lillian Leyb working as a seamstress on New York’s Lower East Side, and becoming mistress to both theater owner Reuben Burstein and his homosexual son Meyer (a popular matinee idol). Lillian’s stoicism masks the terror that haunts her in recurring dreams—of the massacre of her family by “goyim” revenging themselves on Jews sharing the meager resources of their village (Turov) and of the reported subsequent death of her beloved daughter Sophie. When another relative newly arrived in America reports that Sophie lives (having been rescued by a family that moved on to Siberia), Lillian embarks on a complex pilgrimage that takes her to Seattle and points north. She survives being robbed and beaten, bonds with a resourceful black prostitute, is sent for her own safety to a women’s work farm by the one man (widowed constable Arthur Gilpin) who seems not to have sexual designs on her, then makes her way across the Yukon to the Alaskan coast, encountering a refugee exiled following an accidental killing, John Bishop, who will be either her last best hope of finding Sophie or the alternative to a life of ceaseless wandering and suffering. Summary doesn’t do justice to this compact epic’s richness of episode and characterization, nor to the exemplary skill with which Bloom increases her story’s resonance through dramatic foreshadowing of what lies ahead for her grifters and whores and romantic visionaries and stubborn, hard-bitten adventurers.
Echoes of Ragtime, Cold Mountain and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, in an amazingly dense, impressively original novel.