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The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel.

April 15, 2013

The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel.  Scribner (2005), Paperback, 336 pages.

MY FAVORITES

Another fine novel by a talented author, this time set in the Jewish communities of East End and West End of late-nineteenth-century London.

Lillian Nattel tells the stories of two young Jewish women, each of them arriving alone on the London docks.  Nehama comes first and, deceived, is forced into a life of prostitution.  Although she escapes and marries, she is no longer able to give birth to a child.  When Emilia arrives, already pregnant, Nehama is able to keep her out the hands of those who would abuse her.  Nehama and her husband are mired in poverty, however, and the only future facing Emilia when her baby arrives is a despicable marriage.  She runs away leaving her baby daughter behind to be raised by Nehama.Recreating herself as a gentile, Emilia marries a well-to-do, assimilated Jewish man while Nehama raises the baby in the pains and threats of poverty.  Ghosts and grandmothers from their homelands help both women through the conflicts and challenges of their lives.

Various themes are skillfully woven into the narrative: poverty, assimilation, and religion among them.  But most of all The Singing Fire is about motherhood.  In her acknowledgements, Nattel explains that her own two daughters were born while she was writing this book and their presence changed her and the book she produced.  Certainly she captures the contradictory reality of being a mother.

It isn’t true that a mother is born with her child.  It may happen sometimes by an act of grace, but more often a mother is made as she struggles with her need for sleep and freedom of movement, over and over choosing to hold and feed and wrap a loudly wailing, soft-skinned being that produces marvelously pungent odors.

In her narrative we see how Nehama cherishes her child, Gittel, and seeks a life for her that is better than her own has been.  We see Gittel wondering about the mother who left, and Emilia dreaming of the child when she becomes pregnant again.  Nehama ponders the two mothers claiming the same child before King Solomon, and some of the tension which drives the book centers on questions about whose child Gittel really is.

I first noticed Nattel when she commented that she writes historical fiction by emerging herself in the details of another time and place.  In The Singing Fire, Nattel has absorbed abundant details about both the East End, where Nehama lives, and the West End, the home of Emilia.  Her novel brings life in both places alive.  She also is deeply knowledgeable about Judaism and her novels contain fine descriptions and explanations of Jewish rituals and practices which I, a non-Jew, appreciated.  Best of all she knows and includes older Jewish stories that have largely been forgotten today.

Tradition says that in the beginning there was only God.  Then came the tzim-tzum.  The Holy One withdrew to make space for creation, though it left Him lonely and us lonely, separated from each other.  The female aspect of God didn’t go, but stayed with us in our exile, and She, the divine presence among living beings is called the Shekhina.  She sings and cries and comforts us with her broken wing as she is also limited to the world of imperfect stuff.

Nattel is a skilled writer who obviously takes time to know her subject.  Her books are both insightful and a pleasure to read.   This is a wonderful book, even though I think her first novel, The Midnight Village, is even better.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, including readers who don’t usually read historical fiction.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 15, 2013 1:45 pm

    Wonderful review, I think this is book I would very much love to read. Your review has piqued my interest and I also love to read about Judaism though it may not feature so much here. Thanks for sharing Marilyn

  2. April 15, 2013 6:23 pm

    Thanks. Yes, I think you would enjoy this book and her earlier Midnight River. There is quite a lot about Judaism in this and Jewish people with a wide variety of attitudes toward their religion. And Nattel is a warm engaging writer. I feel good after reading her books.

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