What if the world’s Jews had resettled in North America instead of in the Middle East?
Simon T. Lenox is an American police investigator reluctantly pursuing Liam Emanuel, a man gone missing. Emanuel, an Israeli, arrived only recently in the United States. He arrived and then disappeared. Lenox traces him to Niagara Falls, where it seems Emanuel has an inheritance waiting for him. It turns out that in 1825, an American Jew purchased an island, downriver from the falls, intending it to be a homeland for Jews from all over the world. Semel (And the Rat Laughed, 2008, etc.) has rooted her most recent work of fiction in what is apparently historical fact. A man named Mordecai Noah really bought Grand Island with the grand intentions that, as we know, came to nothing. The first portion of Semel’s novel, set in September 2001, concerns Lenox’s search for Emanuel, a descendant of Noah’s. The second part goes backward in time to see Noah buy the land in question from the Native Americans currently settled there. The last part imagines an alternate world in which Grand Island became a real refuge for Jews. It is called “Isra Isle,” and it has effectively replaced a certain nation with a similar-sounding name. This is an odd—a deeply odd—piece of fiction, and it is even odder in Semel’s telling. That’s partly because she packs in so much that is tangential to the story: 9/11, for one, but also the fact that Lenox, the investigator, is of Native American descent—and not only that, he experiences visions. It’s hard not to see this as cultural stereotyping, especially since Lenox, like Semel’s other characters, is otherwise as flat as a piece of cardboard.
Semel’s imagined history might have been more convincing if her smaller details had held together: her characters, for one, and their motivations, manners of speaking, and so on—but they don’t.