Figures from Jewish mysticism and mythology, a Russian grandfather’s legacy and the fate of a newborn child entwine in an inventive if at times obscure debut.
With its wheeling stars, magical rabbi, disgraced angels, black dogs and European hinterland, Feldman’s novel—though set substantially in contemporary New York—has the flavor of Chagall’s visionary art. Its central characters are previously devoted sisters Marjorie and Holly Burke, whose close relationship has been disrupted by Holly’s unexpected marriage to an orthodox Jew, Nathan. Marjorie, the studious one, is working on a Ph.D. about the Wandering Jew, while Holly has given birth to her first child, Eli, named after the girls’ grandfather (who died recently, and to whom Marjorie was especially close). Searching through old Eli’s possessions, Marjorie finds one of four notebooks in which he wrote stories of the White Rebbe, a religious guru of great stature who carries the Sabbath Light and owes a promise to the Angel of Losses. While seeking the other three books, Marjorie meets Simon, another student doing research in a similar area, who will become her lover; she also repeatedly encounters a strange, possibly sinister elderly man with piercing blue eyes who gives her an amulet and seems to know a lot about old Eli. As Marjorie learns the truth about her grandfather’s tragic past, young Eli falls gravely ill and Nathan disappears. By turns gothic, heart-rending and impenetrable, Feldman’s story sometimes seems too wrapped up in its theology but eventually reaches a cosmic climax in which Marjorie embraces her destiny while re-establishing her connection to Holly.
Readers may enjoy this two-tier story more for its accessible romantic and family dramas than its convoluted religious arcana, but Feldman devotes passionate storytelling and powerful narrative skills to both.