Like the mythical Polish shtetl of Blaszka in which it is set, The River Midnight
is boisterous, tangled with secrets, and startlingly generous. Told more as nine interwoven stories, Lilian Nattel's debut novel portrays Jewish village life in the 19th century as both dense and wondrous, something akin to Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo--with similar touches of magic realism. The novel uses a roughly nine-month period in 1894 as its framework, each chapter recounting many of the same events through the eyes of successive characters. Along the way we encounter the pettiness, charity, gossip, and customs that sustain the village, making its cramped life both full and frustrating. At the center of this whirl is Misha, the midwife, whose own pregnancy is one of the book's abiding mysteries, and who, despite her inscrutability, elicits a resolute affection from her fellow villagers: the men who have loved or admired her, and the women she has befriended, provoked, and, ultimately, redeemed. "I have to hold the secrets of the whole village," Misha explains, and as we learn of her girlhood friendships and adult loves, the twined network of those secrets becomes increasingly apparent.
The novel's ambitious fragmentation, while it may occasionally lead us down the same stretch of road, is undeniably effective--revealing the bottomless texture of mingled lives. And while the story's magic realism is a bit intermittent and tangential, Nattel more than compensates with lush, scrupulous detail and an unerring eye for the tension between self-interest and benevolence. In The River Midnight, she has created a world where flesh and prayer, accident and magic, coincide. --Ben Guterson
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From Publishers Weekly
Canadian author Nattel's debut novel poignantly and humorously evokes shtetl life by interweaving stories of four Jewish women in Blaszka, a turn-of-the-century Polish village. As vilda hayas (wild children), they romp in the woods. As adults, they bind their community together through their shared joys, sorrows, schemes and scandals. Married to the butcher and running his shop with wily efficiency, childless Hanna-Leah likes to bathe and dream in the Polnocna (Midnight) River. Restless Faygela has several children, the eldest in jail for helping her American cousin spread revolutionary ideas. After Zisa-Sara dies in America, her orphaned children are returned to her native village to be raised by friends. Looming over all is earth-goddess Misha, a strong, independent midwife who divorces her husband and refuses to remarry or reveal the father of her child. Blaszka plays host to Russians, Poles, Jews, non-Jews, players, peddlers, drifters and demons. As villagers travel, the reader also glimpses the streets of Plotsk, Paris, Warsaw and immigrant New York. Retelling each scene from different perspectives in fluid prose dotted with aphorisms and Yiddishisms, Nattel celebrates a culture that values scholarship, charity and individual freedom, its high-mindedness balanced by a coarse appreciation of human weakness. Details of food preparation, sexual attitudes, religious ritual and family routine produce a richly textured portrait of a small town. While her modest magic realism (evidently owing a debt to Singer and Aleichem) never soars, it beautifully captures a lost way of life and its enduring sense of community. Agent, Helen Heller. BOMC and QPB alternates; rights sold in Italy, Germany, Canada, U.K. and the Netherlands.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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