Another marvelous tale steeped in Jewish history and culture, from the author of The River Midnight (1999).
The Yiddish theater and the teeming streets of London’s Jewish ghetto in the last quarter of the 19th century form a vibrant backdrop for Nattel’s two strong-minded heroines. Nehama arrives from Poland in 1875 and falls into the clutches of the Squire, who turns the 17-year-old virgin into a prostitute and beats her savagely when she tries to run away. Even after she escapes and marries the goodhearted tailor Nathan, she’s convinced that her seamy past is to blame for her miscarriage. So when Emilia, daughter of an affluent but sadistic Minsk notary, turns up in London in 1886, just as unprotected as Nehama was—and very pregnant as well—the rough-edged East Ender rescues the new arrival from the pimps prowling the docks. Emilia flees, leaving behind her infant daughter to be raised by Nehama and Nathan. Their struggles are contrasted with Emilia’s comfortable life after her brief stint as a fashionable shopgirl attracts the admiration of successful hack writer Jacob Zalkind, whom she allows to believe she’s a gentile. The author paints powerful portraits of two very different women who both hide the truth about their past from their husbands, while also tracing the age-old immigrant conflict between allegiance to ethnic roots and yearnings for the tantalizing freedoms offered in a new society. The ghosts of Nehama’s grandmother and the first wife of Emilia’s hateful father watch over the action; the Toronto-based author deftly folds these magical elements into the essentially realistic storyline. Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that’s never simply for laughs (Emilia suffers “the ordinary fortune of every woman from the day that Eve was pushed out of her garden and realized that she must find a good address”), and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge.
Beautifully written, strongly imagined, and deeply felt.