Yitzhak Goldah arrives in Savannah, Georgia, in 1947 with a hat, a small suitcase, and the suit on his back, like “a sail still holding its shape even after the wind has died away.”
Goldah, a Czech Jew, is 31 years old; he has just survived two and a half years in concentration camps. Now the war has ended, and his cousins, Abe and Pearl Jesler, have sponsored his immigration to the American South. From the moment of his arrival, Goldah is struck by a series of hypocrisies. First there is the sodden pity directed at him by the Jeslers and their wealthy friends, who pant for information about what he’s “been through” even as they squirm before the truth. Then there is the odd rivalry between Savannah’s Conservative and Reform Jews, a division that may seem trivial to Goldah but which affects him all the same. It isn’t long before Goldah, who has landed with the Conservative Jeslers, finds himself attracted to a beautiful Reform widow named Eva, drawing frowns of disapproval from both sides. Finally, there is the systematic oppression of black people, which Savannah’s Jews participate in even as they are learning the extent of the devastation wreaked by the Holocaust. As Calvin, a black man who works for Abe, tells Goldah: “They tried to kill you, all a you, all at once. I seen that. But here they kill us one at a time and that’s a difference.” This is a lot for one slim novel to pack in, but Rabb, author of a trilogy of historical thrillers, packs in more. As it turns out, Abe, a shoe salesman, has involved himself in some illegal import business and is in over his head. Then a mysterious woman appears: Goldah, it seems, had once been engaged, and the fiancee he had presumed dead is alive. It’s at this point that the novel starts to break down. Rabb is an accomplished storyteller with an eye for telling detail and for dialogue. The novel proceeds at a fast clip. But he’s jammed in too much. The plot feels overly determined, burdened by the historical parallels Rabb is everywhere eager to draw. His desire to wrap up all these narrative lines seems too neat and tidy, too like a gift box tightly wrapped in string.
An overly schematic novel about suffering, trauma, and the possibility of healing that works best in its moments of quiet, spare description.