Tuesday, May 02, 2017

book gush: After Anatevka by Alexandra Silber

Memory, she thought, is a sacred place. It is the place where the past is gathered—an inner synagogue where we make meaning of our existence.

 You know those books that just make you giddy because they are soooooo good and the author is SOOOO smart and you are just happy you live in a world where words can be outfitted to paint a splendid, moving, remarkable heart-stopping portrait of love and life and hope and ache and power?

You know those books that just tug you into them and hold you tightly so that you look up and are surprised that you are on the subway and not sitting across from characters whose tongues drip simple wisdom and who are salt and light and everything that is flawed and flourishing about humanity?

Image result for after anatevkaAfter Anatevka  is that book.  It is a globe, a sphere, one of those snowglobes you shake peering into the tiny world crafted perfectly and shrouded in flickering snowflakes. It is a capture of a moment of exquisite heartbreak against a brutal yet achingly lovely canvas that can never quell that which you cannot tether from a human: faith, hope, the best kind of once-in-a-million love.

After Anatevka answers a question I revisit every time I see a production of Fiddler on the Roof: what happens after Hodel leaves Anatevka with the news that her beloved, the radically smart Perchik, has been transported to a Siberian prison?

The door on her story is closed at the train station as she explains why she will go far from the home she loves to follow Perchik while her father Tevye, is confronted with one more way that the traditions of his past and his religion are fraying at the seams.

I thought this was a fascinating premise for a novel and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.   What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to encounter one of the smartest historical novels I have read in an age nor one of the most lyrical debut voices of my reading life.

After Anatevka, is not a story so much as an experience and in lesser hands it could never embroider the pathos and light of a historical narrative tradition to create  a melancholy and everlasting tapestry of hope.

Yes, hope.  For all the darkness undercutting Hodel’s imprisonments and Perchik’s suffering in the Siberian salt mines, the power of hope and the commitment to life ( hear L’Chaim! in your head) is the true theme of the story.  Love knows no barriers. Love is a spiritual connection .Love has agency beyond borders and boundaries, deceit and despair.

The bookrepresents Hodel and Perchik’s present:  first Hodel incarcerated as a single woman in pursuit of her fiance in a kind of holding cell ( held in time and place at the mercy of waiting ) and then reunited with Perchik in Nerchinsk  with respective flashbacks subverting every trope of romantic ballads with startling freshness.  It is in flashbacks that Silber is at her most ingenious: colouring in the world of Hodel and her sisters and infusing a crash course in cultural norms in early 20th Century Russia.   A treatise on the beauty of domesticity and the advocacy for women who think beyond the realm of their small town and customs are balanced to justify all female experience. The feminine sphere – either perfecting the baking of the challah or pursuing a man outside of your faith ( Chava) are seen as equal experiences and all worthy.    In the latter half of the book, Perchik’s story is embroidered—and taken beyond the seams of anything grounded in its many nods to its theatrical counterpart and into Silber’s own imagination.   While Hodel’s limitations are dictated by the rubrics of a woman’s place in Anatevka, so Perchik finds poverty and mental abuse by his uncle the chains that would keep him from pursuing life.  And all while peeling back the curtain of their formative years, Silber forms the perfect pair--- allowing the reader to fully understand why Hodel would leave the safety of her home for a life of destitution and darkness and why Perchik pursued a forbidden dance with the dairyman’s daughter in a small village. 

Their connection is palpable and bursts off the page.   Even while Hodel is drawn to the past: remembering, fingering through letters late delivered from her sister Tzeitel, we see that there was no other choice but for her to chase one half of her soul—Perchik---no matter the consequences.

A large portion of the book follows the (expertly researched ) daily life of internment at a labour camp.  Into this world, Silber broadens the circle with fluid, dimensional characters – both overseers and fellow prisoners—that add colour, human and life to its dreary toil.

I just cannot say enough about this book. It is a world.   Silber’s instincts are pitch perfect, drawing you in and tethering you to a tale remarkable in its praise of the fortitude of spirit and intelligence.  Modern parallels ( the best aspect of historical fiction), encourage the reader to ponder how far they would go to speak and be heard.   Faith is at the crux of Hodel and Perchik’s love, even as they find it beyond the metrics of the traditions that Tevye saw slipping from his family in the source musical.   And all unfurling in an expertly woven tale full of self-awareness and beautiful language.

“The pivot?” Hodel murmured.
“The fulcrum. The turning point. In every story there is always a moment when the anchoring thread of the tapestry unravels.  I don’t know that I have ever been inside that story until now.”

“There is a kind of transaction that occurs between a person and a place: you give the place something and it gives you something in return.  In years to come, Hodel would know for certain not only what Nerchinsk had taken, but what it had given her as well.”

For theatre buffs, this book will excite you – yes, it does have several lovely nods to the musical so beloved.  But for readers with no previous attachment to the story, rejoice! We have found an earth-shatteringly beautiful new voice in historical fiction—resplendent with passion and poetry.  A perfect voice for excavating the little moments in humanity against the bleak brutality of Nerchinsk.

And then, the descriptions (music!) “ Hodel admired how the broadness of his shoulders curved above the volume as if he were cradling the very thoughts upon the pages with his entire body.”

“How exquisitely Nerchinsk sulks upon its gray and sorrowful bluff. How shafts of sun burst through the thick, low blanket of cloud above the village like stabs of hope from heaven.”  (ARE YOU KIDDING ME???? Dies of love)

And the feminism “Hodel saw it through her sister’s eyes: women were created to be in every way partners, not mindless slaves or brainless doormats, but helpers, collaborators, equals. And that was a thing of great beauty”

And the simple wisdom “For our greatest rewards, Hodel, sometimes we must endure.”
“Perchik could no longer stand being believed in—belief was heavy; it was burning sunlight in his eyes.”

And this : “ I wanted a woman who was somewhat like the moon. I would miss her when she was away and appreciate her when she returned, but I did not want her around all the time!”

And this: “In two little words, all of Hodel’s life choices were suddenly obliterated by Tzeitel’s sense of domestic superiority” ( snortle. There are a lot of lovely sibling moments in this!)

I had a full blown love affair with this book.  It exceeded expectations I didn't know I had and then some.   

Pre-order two copies at least: one for you and one for the person you will immediately ache to share it with.  This story is a love letter and love letters are never meant to experienced in solitude. 

With thanks to Pegasus and Netgalley for the review copy.

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