A debut by a nonagenarian who recalls a Romeo-and-Juliet story involving his older, Jewish sister and a Christian boy from across the street.
Bernstein demands that readers suspend more than disbelief; they must also disengage all skepticism, all critical thinking. His memoir offers no specific dates (we know only that we are in the era of World War I), no documentation, no photocopies, no way for an interested (or dubious) reader to verify any of this story. And what a story. When he is four years old, living in a Lancashire mill town, the author serves as a sort of Huck Finn intermediary, carrying secret love messages between two local lovers (Jewish girl, Christian boy). The author’s father is a sort of Pap Finn, too—drunken, sullen, occasionally violent. When his daughter wins a scholarship, he goes off on a rant about education and drags her by the hair to the tailor’s shop where she must labor beside him. The author’s mother, by contrast, is archetypal—patient, hardworking, loving, forgiving. When he is 11, the author discovers that his sister, Lily, is secretly meeting with her forbidden boyfriend, Arthur—and that they are planning to elope. He goes along with them, then returns later to inform his family. All in the neighborhood—Christians and Jews—are angry. But then Lily has a baby; there is a block party for the new arrival, and the little child unites the residents. Two things that trouble: (1) much of the story is presented in verbatim dialogue, including, when the narrator is ten, a long debate about Socialism at the dinner table; (2) the author is always where he needs to be. A neighborhood suicide? He’s there. Key letters from Mom to relatives? He writes as Mom dictates.
Seems less a memoir, more an autobiographical novel. Caveat lector.