Book review: On the run

Rachel Barenbaum’s debut novel follows the lives of four Russian Jews in 1914, desperate to escape the war closing in around them.

A PHOTOGRAPH of Jewish girls in Samarkand, in what was then Russia sometime between 1909 and 1915. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A PHOTOGRAPH of Jewish girls in Samarkand, in what was then Russia sometime between 1909 and 1915.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
First-time novelist Rachel Barenbaum is a gifted writer. She instinctively understands pace, plot, characterization and the subtle intricacies that support a good storyline. You immediately lose yourself in her debut novel, A Bend in the Stars, which follows the lives of four frazzled modern Jews on the run in Russia in 1914 hoping to find sanctuary somewhere as World War I beckons and antisemitism erupts.
Although Barenbaum holds you firmly in her grasp, she often forgets about the surprising reckonings that can erupt between characters when a writer feels confident enough to relinquish their grasp for a while and allow things to evolve spontaneously. But Barenbaum isn’t quite there yet.
The novel begins innocuously enough in a museum in Philadelphia in the year 2000. Ethel Zane, an elderly and melancholy Jewish woman, has brought her granddaughter to an exhibit about their family’s life in Russia before the First World War. The exhibit was mostly about her Uncle Vanya, whom she had never met, and who spent the bulk of his years working on improving Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Vanya had been certain that Einstein’s theory had essential flaws within it, related to the way light bends, something he was certain Einstein had missed. Vanya’s mathematical notes had recently and accidentally been discovered, and had prompted this exhibition about the many scientists who had competed in the race to prove relativity. But Vanya never got to finish.
Ethel Zane’s mother, Miriam Abramov, was Uncle Vanya’s sister and spectacular in her own right. She was the first female surgeon at the Jewish hospital in Kovno in 1914. Ethel is overwhelmed by seeing the pictures of her family on the wall in the museum. Seeing the images of so many Jews who suffered so heinously and died way too early.
Barenbaum seems to be hinting that Ethel wants to be able to impart an optimistic message to her granddaughter, but is overcome with the reality of the fragility of Jewish lives back then; and even now. Words don’t come easily to her.
“Life doesn’t travel in a straight line,” Ethel says instead. “Knowing the end doesn’t mean you can follow it back to the beginning.”
Within seconds, Barenbaum thrusts us backwards in time to Kovno, Russia. It is 1914.
Vanya worked as a professor at the university, where he was known for his lectures that were always overflowing with students eager to watch him work out loud while he scribbled his half-baked theories on the blackboard while lost in thought. He would forget the students were present, but they remained spellbound, understanding they were witnessing a genius consumed by his own inspirations. His superior, Kir, would often steal his preliminary findings and publish them under his own name, and when Vanya objected, Kir would say simply, “Remember, you’re a Jew.” Vanya knew he was coming closer to figuring it all out, and wanted to travel across Russia to meet an American photographer who was coming to Russia to photograph the eclipse. It was this picture that Vanya felt would prove his new theories about relativity; about how the universe really worked. Perhaps too, this collaboration with the American might buy his family passage to America, which was now crucial if they were all to save themselves from what was coming.
Vanya’s sister, Miri – Ethel’s mother – was spending her time at the hospital where she worked tirelessly as a surgeon. She was engaged to Yuri, whom she loved, but resented, too, for she found him overbearing. Miri was tender-hearted but fiercely strong and connected to Russia, which had always been her home. The talk of war and leaving her homeland upset her, but she saw firsthand what was happening on the streets; particularly to the Jews who seemed to always be the first targets. Just that day, she had tended to the fish monger; a man who brought her family his catch every Monday. He was brought to the hospital with “the word ‘Jew’ scrawled on his chest with so much hate that the charcoal used to write it cut his skin. The letters oozed red. His ribs were cracked and Miri was sure his spleen was pierced.”
BOTH VANYA and Miri had been raised to be loving, but always wary by their beloved Babushka. She was a matchmaker in the community, but so much more.
“While on the surface the generosity of Baba’s married couples made it appear Miri’s family, the Abramov family, was integrated into the Jewish community, they weren’t,” Barenbaum writes. “Kovno’s poorer Jews thought the Abramovs were above them and the richer Jews believed they were below them, but both agreed Baba’s position went beyond matchmaker – she was the anchor that held the community together. And they needed her and her sitting room where they could gather because above it all, Kovno’s Jews were united by ideas, by the belief they could assimilate and become Russian Jews, not just Jews.”
Babushka counseled the Jewish women who came to see her and she kept their secrets. She was loved and trusted and repaid with lavish gifts for arranging marriages for their children. But in private, Babushka was cautious; traumatized by what had happened to her in Odessa, and determined to survive. She always had at least one escape route at the ready; knew which gentiles she could bribe; and remembered that almost everyone had a price.
A plan is hatched that will take all of them into mortal danger, clinging – as Jews always have – to the slimmest of hopes that somehow they can outrun a fate that seems to have already been decided. Their plans are quickly disrupted by unforeseen complications that throw everything into disarray. New plans are put in place and they persevere. Vanya and Yuri are already on the run in pursuit of the American photographer who is coming to photograph the eclipse; unaware that many who wish them ill are already searching for them.
Babushka has found temporary sanctuary with a relative while she waits for her grandchildren to come for her. And Miri has taken off with a man she found accidentally when he jumped from a moving train into the river and injured his arm, which she stitched back together for him. His name is Sasha and he offers to go with her in search of her brother and her fiancé. He had been conscripted into the czar’s army and his commanding officer was torturing him when he made the impulsive decision to jump from the train hoping the water would shield his fall. Miri is wary of him at first, but their unexpected relationship blossoms into something surprising spectacular; a love affair that forms almost organically hiding beneath burlap sacks on railroad cars in terror that the Russian soldiers aboard will find them. Or sleeping side by side in freezing barnyards of peasants who sometimes let them stay the night in exchange for an apple or a piece of cheese. The war with the Germans is taking a fierce toll, and Jews are simply collateral damage.
Barenbaum’s characters grow on you. They are for the most part all wounded souls; carriers of secrets; and not who they appear to be when we first meet them. But still, strange and unexpected alliances form. Those who are thought to be trusted allies are often revealed to be double dealing. Every once in a while, a righteous man steps up and does something that is truly heroic. But war doesn’t bring out the best in people; it brings out the worst, and Barenbaum doesn’t hesitate to show us the ugliness and violence that remains at its core. More importantly, she understands the importance of the personal preoccupations of the individuals regardless of their circumstances. Her characters remain centered on themselves and their own obsessions and longings and insecurities; even as the war blows up around them. Such is the banality of the human condition.
Barenbaum spent many years working as a successful hedge fund manager and a spin instructor before fleeing to the suburbs of New Hampshire with her husband and children in order to write. A photograph online shows a woman with sparkling eyes holding a binder that reads “Always keep your protagonist in trouble,” a mantra she clearly heeded in this first novel. It is good writing advice, but it is also a sand trap; one she sometimes can’t seem to see. Because the almost dizzying frantic momentum of her novel is what threatens to bury it. Speed can’t really compensate for contemplation or perception or introspection.
Her novel gives her access to very important Jewish themes; the whole notion of Jewish estrangement since the onset of modernity and the psychological cost upon Jews from the historical and emotional constraints that have hindered Judaism for the last few centuries. But she neglects to explore either of these at great length. Her hand remains, dare I say, too steady. Her gaze too direct. Her focus too fixated on the finish line. We don’t sense her presence in any of her characters nor do we detect her own Jewish vulnerability. And this pressing absence ultimately prevents her characters from piercing our hearts.