21 July 2017

Isra Isle

A review of Isra Isle: A Novel, by Nava Semel, translated by Jessica Cohen (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

This is a novel in three parts: part detective story, part speculation about a peculiar footnote in American and Jewish history, part alternate history based on that speculation. As the story progresses it constructs a fictional alternate homeland for the Jews in upstate New York.

Part 1, ‘Grand Island’, is the story of a manhunt set in New York state in early September 2001. Simon Teibele Lenox (aka White Raven), an experienced New York cop, is assigned to a Secret Service unit based in the Twin Towers. His task is to find an Israeli, Liam Emanuel, who has come to USA in search of an alternative promised land. The finality of his abandonment of Israel is symbolized by the fact that he left his shoes behind at Ben Gurion Airport (metaphorically shaking the dust of Israel off his feet). But the Israeli authorities want him found and quietly returned. Of course they do, ‘Emanuel’ means ‘God-with-us’, and the Zionist vision of Israel is meaningless if God has abandoned it.

In the course of his investigation, Lenox begins a relationship with a Jewish colleague, Jackie Winona Brendel, which forms an obsessive subtheme in his thoughts as his search for Emanuel takes him to Grand Island, NY. The author’s play with NY place names as Emanuel and Lenox head for Grand Island makes this a something of a second exodus.

This is where the historical footnote comes in. Grand Island was bought in 1825 by Mordecai Manuel Noah who intended to found a Jewish refuge there, to be called Ararat. In Semel’s version, Emanuel is Noah’s descendant and he has the title deeds to prove his ownership.

Having tracked down Emanuel on Grand Island and failed to persuade him to return, Lenox returns to New York on the morning of 11th September and goes to his office to write his report and resign . . . And the story ends with Jackie pinning up missing person fliers.

Part 2 takes us back to 1825. Noah has come to Buffalo to claim the island he has purchased. This is a first-person narrative written from the perspective of an Indian serving woman, Little Dove, in the household of Noah’s host, Lenox. She persuades Noah to visit the island, which in reality he never set foot on. While they are together on the island, they make love. Noah leaves; Little Dove remains, carrying his child – a fusion of Jew and Indian. And so the scene is set for the alternate history of Part 3.

Semel returns us to September 2001. Ararat rather than Israel has become the Jewish homeland. But the religion of Ararat is a strange fusion of Judaism and Native American traditions. A colour-blind gay black Indian (!) photographer, Simon, is in a relationship with Jake Brendel (aka DJ Teibele), a Jew who has exiled himself from Ararat. Simon is commissioned by newspaper magnate, Lenox, to follow the story of Ararat’s governor, Emanuella Winona Noah, as she makes her bid for the White House. Initially on the lookout for a scandal, Simon eventually meets the governor and is won over by her. Again there is a subtheme of Simon obsessing about his relationship with Jake. Part 3, and the novel as a whole, concludes with Simon returning by plane to New York. He is looking at the Twin Towers and for the first time in his life he sees a flash of red when the plane crashes (?). Then we segue to Greater Damascus (which is Israel in our universe) where Jake has gone to scatter Simon’s ashes.

That summary seems to be full of spoilers, but I don’t think that really matters. The storylines seem less important than the symbolism and the careful weaving together of names and ideas across the three parts of the novel. There is the recurring fusion of Jewish elements with elements representing other victim groups (specifically native Americans, blacks, and gays). And this is achieved by presenting us with characters of mixed heritage, describing sexual relationships that bring together the different victim groups, and by mixing and matching Jewish and American Indian names.

A recurring theme throughout the novel is the quest of oppressed people/exiles for a place they can call home. But they do not find what they are looking for. In the real world, the Zions they try to create fail to live up to their promise.

Did I enjoy the novel? No. Does that matter? Perhaps not in this case. I am left with a sense that I have only scratched the surface of the novel’s meaning(s). If you are looking for a gripping yarn to while away a few hours, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you want an intellectual challenge that will make you want to read and re-read until you have begun to make sense of its complexities, you could do far worse than tackle Isra Isle.

14 July 2017

Wolf in the Attic

A review of Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney (Solaris, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

Paul Kearney is probably best known as a writer of epic fantasies. His series ‘The Monarchies of God’, ‘The Sea Beggars’, and ‘The Macht’ are all excellent examples of that genre. So this new book from his pen will be something of a surprise to readers who come to it expecting more of the same. Instead of another epic fantasy, he offers us a lyrical coming of age story set in Oxford at the end of the 1920s.

The heroine is one Anna Francis (or Sphrantzes), a twelve-year-old Greek refugee who survived the 1922 sack of Smyrna by the Turks. She is now living in Oxford with her father and is desperately unhappy. She has no friends of her own age and she misses her mother who was killed by the Turks. To make matters worse, in his despair over the loss of his home and family her father has turned to alcohol and become obsessed with campaigning for the repatriation of Greek refugees. Their life is increasingly impoverished, though he somehow finds the money to keep paying for her private education.

Anna’s story begins in fragmentary manner, reflecting her tutor’s complaints about her dragonfly mind. Snatches of narrative give us her impressions of Oxford and memories of their evacuation from Smyrna. The story is written largely in the first person and in the present tense, giving it a slow, dreamlike quality.

Anna takes refuge from her loneliness in books and daydreams and long walks around Oxford. One winter’s evening she slips out of their house in Jericho to escape yet another of her father’s interminable committee meetings. She finds her way to Port Meadow where she witnesses a killing, which marks the beginning of her descent into a living nightmare.

Her life has become linked with that of the killer, a young Romani boy named Luca. A few weeks later near midwinter, she encounters Luca and his family in Wytham Wood. Shortly afterwards, she helps Luca hide from the Roadmen, the ancient enemies of his people. And the next morning her father is found dead – apparently murdered by one or more individuals he had invited into the house.

Anna, now orphaned and disowned by the Greek exile community, is destined for the workhouse. Instead she runs away, intent on finding her way to Luca’s people. Her quest leads her into an ever stranger world – the Old World – of Romani and Roadmen, of skinchangers and an Oxfordshire farmer, Gabriel, who may also be some kind of native deity – a world in which she faces down the devil and avenges her father’s death. And at the end of it all she discovers what she thought she had lost for ever – home, the home of her heart – no longer in Smyrna but in rural Oxfordshire.

Strangely though, the novel does not feel as if this is the end of the story. She has come of age and she has attained her heart’s desire (albeit through great loss), but we have been given glimpses of her importance (and that of her relationship with Luca) to the Old World. And these glimpses point to another story beyond this one.

Also pointing beyond this story are her tantalizing encounters with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They are portrayed sympathetically and both (but particularly Lewis) help her at crucial points early in the story. But that help could have been provided by others, so why drag them into it at all? And why play with the history of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity if his is no more than a walk-on part?

Then there is the farmer Gabriel. He feels too large a character to be limited to the supporting role he has here. Is this simple countryman in fact some kind of genius loci or tutelary deity? He reminded me of the kind of being Ransome becomes in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. What is his place in the age old struggle between the Romani and the Roadmen? And what does Anna’s come mean for him and for that ancient tension?

At the end of Wolf in the Attic, I was left with a slew of questions and a sense that Kearney had teased me glimpses of a mythical England about which I’d like to know a good deal more. But this should not be taken as criticism. I thought it was a superbly written book. His previous books have been enjoyable, action-packed fantastical romps. But this is quieter, deeper, more evocative – the kind of book that demands you re-read it as soon as you have reached the end. Wolf in the Attic is a book to savour. I just hope there is a sequel to answer some of my questions!

07 July 2017

Children of Earth and Sky

A review of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest is set in the same world as several of his previous novels. A generation has passed since the fall of Sarantium, which has been renamed Asharias by its conquerors. There is an uneasy stand-off between the victorious Asharites and the Holy Jaddite Empire to the west. The Grand Khalif in Asharias is intent on expanding his empire westwards but has so far been thwarted by the inhospitable lands of Sauradia that lie between his armies and Obravic, the current capital of the Jaddites. But year after year he sends armies west, keeping the Jaddites on the defensive and bleeding their coffers as they are forced to field armies in reply.

There are clear parallels between the world of Kay’s imagination and Renaissance Europe. Readers familiar with European history (or even just European cities) will immediately identify Sarantium/Asharias with Constantinople/Istanbul; likewise Seressa with Venice, Dubrava with Dubrovnik, and less obviously Obravic with Prague. Such similarities are I suspect an important part of what makes Kay’s world-building and his descriptions so powerful; they allow him to draw his readers into places that seem familiar to them through television, Internet, and other media.

But there are important differences as well. While the Jaddites, Asharites, and Kindath (who are mentioned only in passing in this novel) are analogous with Christians, Muslims, and Jews respectively, their beliefs are quite different. And Kay plays with European history as well, distorting and compressing timelines, to further differentiate his imagined history from the real world. Furthermore, Kay’s imagined world is one with a subtle thread of magic woven through it. It is less obvious here than in some of the earlier novels. Of course he is now depicting an era on the cusp of the scientific revolution: alchemists are at work in Obravic and the Emperor is delighted by technological toys. But the magic is still present in a grandfather’s ghostly voice, in the skills of a village healer, in the song of a long dead singer heard only by those with the gift.

It is a richly portrayed tapestry. In the hands of a less-skilled artist the world and its history might have dominated the story and dragged the characters along in its wake. But Kay superimposes upon this grand sweep of history a cast of more or less ordinary characters whose lives we are invited to follow.

Danica Gradek wants revenge for the death of her family and the kidnapping of her brother at the hands of the Asharites. He wants only to serve his Khalif and rise in the ranks of the Djanni, the elite Asharite force made up mainly of men who were kidnapped from Jaddite territories as children.

Pero Villani knows that he has the potential to be a great artist, but poverty stands in his way until an unexpected request comes from the rulers of Seressa. If he does as they ask – and lives to tell the tale – his fortune will be made.

Leonora Valeri has been imprisoned in a convent and her lover butchered by her family. She has nothing left to lose, so when Seressa’s Council of Twelve offers her a new life as their spy in Dubrava she jumps at the chance.

Marin Djivo is the younger son of a leading merchant family in Dubrava. He is weary of his life of womanizing, feels it is time he settled down, perhaps married one of the eligible young women of the city, and took on more responsibility. Then his path crosses those of Danica, Pero, and Leonora. Thereafter their lives weave together and are impacted by larger events in Empire and Kaliphate, opening up new possibilities for them and taking them to places they would never previously have imagined.

Kay clearly loves every one of his characters because he manages to make each one unique and memorable. And that is true even of characters who appear for only a few pages. We are presented with a rich tapestry of lives, and Kay manages to convince the reader that each one is important in the unfolding story of his imagined world. They are all carefully crafted individuals with their own unique hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of whatever fate or the gods have thrown at them. He clearly cares about his characters . . . and therefore so does the reader.

If you have read any of his previous novels, you won’t need any more persuading. If you haven’t, you are in for a treat!