A family saga ranges from contemporary Israel to Egypt to Inquisition-era Spain.
Vivienne leaves her job at the bank early to make it to her wedding on time. “I don’t understand,” says her supervisor, “why didn’t you take the day off?” “No need,” she says. Her husband, Charlie, is one of five Egypt-born brothers. Vita, one of those brothers, “was already married to Adele, who didn’t like the yellow part of the hard-boiled egg, and told everyone in the Egyptian garin—their cohort on the kibbutz—that she’s half-Ashkenazi.” Vivienne doesn’t understand the connection between those two details; all she knows is that, “in the dining hall Adele would always mention these facts together.” Castel-Bloom’s (Dolly City, 2010, etc.) latest novel is full of details like these: banal yet charming, mundane to the point of absurdity. Vivienne and Charlie will have two daughters, referred to only as the Older Daughter and Younger Daughter, while Adele and Vita will have one, the Only Daughter. These daughters eventually have daughters of their own. Castel-Bloom traces their lineage—based on her own—in chapters that switch back and forth in time, ranging as far back as 1492, when one small segment of the Kastil family converts to Christianity in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition. Castel-Bloom has a wonderful sense of the absurd; her saga is reminiscent of both Kafka and García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But her novel ultimately fails to satisfy. In many ways, the work reads more like a collection of linked stories than like a unified novel: characters and situations might be introduced in one chapter only to be dropped in the next. It might be that the balance has been tipped too far toward the banal, with chapters like “The Counter Girl Gets Leverage”—in which Vivienne’s Older Daughter, now middle-aged, becomes interested in the fate of a young convenience store worker—simply going on too long. On the other hand, you’ll want to hear more about that Inquisition.
A modern-day epic seesaws uncomfortably between absurdity and banality.