The River Midnight (1999)

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, Amazon.com

What a wonderfully rich, multi-layered novel this is. I’ve been avoiding writing this review for over a week now since I’m really not sure that I can do justice to it. My own reactions were a bit like the nine different perspectives of the nine main characters. On different days and in different moods I would approach the book with wonder, curiosity, empathy, anxiety and delight. Wonder and curiosity at this world I knew very little about, enjoyment and delight at the dialogue, the character sketches and the plot, and some anxiety about whether it would all work (it does).

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and one that will stay with me for a long time to come. What I particularly liked about the way that Lilian portrays her characters here is that she does so with what Helen Benedict (writing about good profiles) would call verve, originality, humour and music. Whether she is describing Hannah-Leah, Faygela, Emma, Alta-Fruma, Hershel, Hayim, Yarush, Berekh or Misha, the characters sparkle and chatter away independently of their creator.

I read that Lilian said that each of these characters could be seen to represent part of her and I could definitely see the similarity with Faygela (six children and all) but also Hannah-Leah, Emma, Alta-Fruma and even possibly Berekh and Hayim. I was expecting to be repelled by Yarush’s story and I was surprised to find that it was told with compassion and humour. Physically strong while morally and emotionally weak, Yarush never becomes two-dimensional.

Reviewers have compared the River Midnight to a Chagall mural and complimented Lilian on her supple narrative technique and the depth of her study and passion. For me this novel is also the best type of history – stories of everyday people in superb detail but packaged in a way which is easy to take in and to relate to. I couldn’t help laughing at one (sadly misguided) reviewer who lamented that important historical events are mentioned only in passing and that the narrator keeps us at the level of the peasants’ huts. This same blogger also seemed disappointed that the characters were all Jewish. What was she expecting from a novel about a Polish shtetl – Christian characters staying in middle class apartments?

For someone who’s not Jewish, I had no trouble at all relating to the characters and the Yiddish words (from schmeckel to pripicheck). With the Holocaust as a kind of a silent, foreboding future event, I thought that the novel had an added poignancy which was enhanced by the fact that the shtetls live on only in history books, archival records and wonderful historical novels such as this.

If you haven’t done so already, check out the Q&As on Lilian’s blog and also Becca’s review.

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5 Responses to The River Midnight (1999)

  1. Oh Pete, thank you for this wonderful review! Lovely, thoughtful and thorough.

    You know in all the reviews and all the talks I’ve given nobody speaks about or asks about Yarush, so I’m especially glad you mentioned that chapter. It was the hardest to write, to get into the point of view and mind of a man like him, and to look for the humanity there.

  2. I’m going to Amazon right now to order it – don’t know why I didn’t earlier. I am in dire need of a good book.

  3. litlove says:

    I mUST get to this book. I keep saving it up for a treat, but now it’s getting to the point where I need that treat!

  4. doctordi says:

    Ah, see, you beat me after all, Pete! I have *finally* started reading it, it was my post-draft treat, but I’ve been delayed by commissions which I need and want but which have required much more research than usual, gobbling up my reading hours – so hard finding enough of those! So you see I cannot read this review in full until I’ve read it myself because I want it all to be a delicious surprise!

  5. Pete says:

    Lilian – So glad you liked the review! You know, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to all nine main characters and I remember turning to the first of the male chapters just looking for something to kvetch about. But they were all so interesting in their own ways. I’m putting The Singing Fire on my TBR list now too.

    Charlotte – Enjoy! Will be interested to hear your thoughts in due course.

    Litlove – I recommend a slow reading of this book so I wonder how it will work in a busy term. But you strike me as a reader who could read books standing on her head so I’m sure you’ll do just fine 😉

    Di – Good plan – but don’t wait too long.

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