The search for salvation

Jerusalem under fire presents a convincing backdrop to the emotional turmoil that engulfs its principals.

By AKIN AJAYI
October 23, 2008 09:15
4 minute read.
The search for salvation

Who by Fire book 88 224. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Who By Fire By Diana Spechler Harper Perennial 368 pages; $14.95 First-person narrators in fiction often make for unreliable eyewitnesses; it isn't so much that they are incapable of telling the truth, but that they so often struggle to distinguish between personal experience and objective truth. So it is certainly intriguing that in her debut novel, Who By Fire, the American writer Diana Spechler chooses to introduce not one but three narrators; individuals bound together by family ties, but pulled apart by a shared grief. Who By Fire is an anatomy of a family defined by a tragedy. This incident is the abduction of Alena, the youngest of three siblings, from the family's home in New Jersey. She is long presumed dead, but 13 years on, the loss still casts a dark shadow over the family. She inhabits the thoughts and inhibits the actions of the three narrators constantly; separately, they struggle to make sense of their lives as defined by their loss. Bits, the oldest of the siblings, treats intimacy as anathema and instead seeks solace in anonymous, meaningless sex, while Ash, her younger brother, takes the diametrically opposite path. He remains consumed with the guilt that he could have done something to prevent his sister's abduction, and has sequestered himself away in a Jerusalem yeshiva, cutting off his family and devoting himself to God. Meanwhile Ellie, their mother, can only find structure in her life in the role of a perennial victim; first from the loss of Alena, then from her husband's abandonment. Now that Ash has decamped to join a cult, as she views Orthodox Judaism, he must be rescued from himself, she determines - if not for his sake, then at least for hers. When Alena's remains are found, it is Bits's task to bring the family together once again, to give them an opportunity to grieve together. "If a family can't mourn, it begins to decay," she muses early on, and one may speculate at the rot that would have set in after a decade and some more. So it falls to her to travel to Jerusalem to find her brother and bring him back home, to say good-bye to Alena one last time and perhaps salvage something from what her loss left of the family. The family in crisis is a popular theme in contemporary fiction, probably because it is a situation that many readers can relate to, from conjecture if not from experience. What this does mean, however, is that it can be difficult for a fresh voice to distinguish itself from the fray. Writing around this theme must be sharp and authentic to catch the attention of the reader; it must find an original way to convince. For this reason, at least, Spechler's novel must be considered at least a partial success. With Bits, Ash and Ellie, she creates complex, multifaceted individuals, recognizable humans - with all the contradictions we embody - rather than composite aggregates of the stereotypes or prejudices they are intended to represent. This is useful, because the reader finds it easier to identify with their individual plights. None of the three is a completely sympathetic individual, but at least their complexity allows one the opportunity to care about them and what happens to them, and draws the reader wholly into the narrative. What all three have in common, aside from their loss, is a disinclination for self-reflection. They all are fiercely critical of each other, but rarely turn this censorious gaze inward. It is an understandable conceit, and accentuates the narrative thrust, as the reader shuttles among different accounts of the same event, trying to sift out fact from fancy. Having said this, one might think that Who By Fire is not quite the finished article. Sharp observational sketches - "I can still feel where the girl leaned against my arm, as if she left wet paint there," Ash, newly observing religious modesty, laments - do not always camouflage occasional shortcomings. Ellie's emotional vacillations, in particular, do not always convince. Detail is also sometimes uncertain - Mount Meron, for instance, is certainly not located on the "northernmost tip of Israel." But these objections seem churlish when considered against the novel as a whole, and its engaging, engrossing narrative. Set mainly in Jerusalem during the peak of the second intifada, the novel conveys much of the uncertainty of the period; a city under fire presents a convincing backdrop to the emotional turmoil and confusion that engulfs its principals. Who By Fire is an ambitious novel; it just doesn't limit itself to the domestic concerns of a family under strain, but also considers larger issues of faith, hope, tolerance and forgiveness. It is a novel about people who need to learn how to trust themselves to accept the world around them. And, quite possibly, it is a book that we could all learn from, at least a little.

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