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When Rip and I first fell in love, I sometimes used to imagine us as romantic characters in a great tempestuous love story set against the turbulent background of the miners’ strike, transgressing boundaries of wealth and claims to be together. I was his door into an exotic world where noble savages discussed socialism while soaping each other’s backs in t’ pit baths. He was my door into Pemberley Hall and Mansfield Park. We were so full of illusions about each other, maybe it was bound to end in a splattering.
I’m home alone this evening, which is why this review is being posted so late. See I’m someone who lacks any real self-discipline. This is why I am very lucky to be married, because if I ever slack off my wife kicks my arse. Stephanie is in Canberra today, so I have been pottering around the house, trying to convince our old dog to eat its medication, googling funny pictures with cats and generally not reviewing the book I chose this morning!
Finally I wrenched myself back to the business and found myself laughing out loud for most of this afternoon.
Georgie (aka Georgina aka Georgia aka Georgine) has been living a quiet life of writing freelance articles for a specialist magazine (“Adhesives!”), and managing to raise her two children while her husband synergises the world from his blackberry. One day something snaps. She kicks her husband out of the house, orders a skip and dumps all his belongings into it.
Which is how she comes to meet Mrs. Shapiro. An elderly Jewish lady followed by a pride of house-cats, Naomi Shapiro stops in front of Georgie’s house to retrieve Rip’s collection of classical records. The two begin a slow intimate friendship, with Georgie’s own attempts at a poisonous novel based on her own marriage dropped in favour of her new friend’s past, filled with tragic love, young lives ground up by the second world war and escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Then Mrs. Shapiro has a bad fall and winds up in hospital. Georgie unwittingly has become her carer and it falls to her to have her home, stinking of cat-piss and damp, in order so that the hospital doesn’t have social services dump her friend in an institution. What began as an innocent friendship is soon swallowed up by bureaucratic fencing with hospital officials and wolfish estate agents. As Georgie slowly begins to piece together the history of Mrs Shapiro, the house itself becomes a disputed zone between several parties, all laying claim to the property. Meanwhile her own son has developed an obsession with religious prophecies about the end of the world. It is all too much for Georgie, her head swimming in eschatological trivia, disputed geography, inventive uses of velcro and, of course, the erotic uses of adhesives.
This story is warm, inventive and far cleverer than it has any right to be. The creation of the Israeli state, the Holocaust and apocalyptic prophecy, are all neatly bound up with one lonely middle-aged woman desire for a meaningful life. Throughout the novel seemingly innocent oppositions are teased out to reveal more fundamental conflict. Georgie break from Rip seems initially trivial, but the more we learn about their relationship, there appears an essential imbalance present from the very start. Her son’s pursuit of fundamentalist Christian concerns is a neat irony, showing how her hard-won parental liberalism is quick to collapse in the face of something so monolithic.
But it is Mrs Shapiro who proves to be the secret treasure of this book. Marina Lewycka‘s dialogue is quite funny and far more convincing than the tortured English of Alexander Perchov. With her random combinations of Yiddish and English slang I found her to be a far less self-conscious creation. Think Everything is Illuminated meets Sue Townsend, if you’ll pardon the high concept.
Witty, very clever and studied, a fine novel from Marina Lewycka. Strongly recommended.
Ah, the old doggie has gone to bed for the evening. That’s a relief.
I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.
This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.
A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London. Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.
The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?
The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.
One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.
This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).
Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.
“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?
Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel. If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.
‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.
The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.
Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.
The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.