From time to time, all too rarely, there comes a novel that so exceeds my expectations of mere excellence that I am tossed into the experience of magic. There is simply no way to explain, in terms of anything I know of conventional criticism, the power of the piece. Such was the impact of reading The Singing Fire, by Lilian Nattel (Scribner, 336 pages, $25).
It is the tale of two women, both born in the late 19th century to eastern European Jewish families. They live far apart, geographically and in social status. But both are so acutely unhappy with their circumstances and prospects that they flee to London with nothing but indomitable will. They know no one there, have never been on their own, and have no idea of what they will do -- except the expectation of living in a land free from Tsarist oppression, social immobility and the general abuse of Jews.
Nattel, a Canadian whose parents emigrated from Poland, has done immense historical and anecdotal research. Her previous novel, The River Midnight, was set in a Polish village before the outset of this book, which may be regarded as its sequel. Here, she tells the story, the stories, fluently, convincingly. The dialog is crisp and fast moving, the fabric of lives 130 years ago is punctilious and convincing. The characters are superbly accessible, understandable, alive. Touches of magic realism embroider the emotional tapestry.
The first woman is Nehama Korzen, from Plotsk, Poland. Her father is a custom tailor, but far from prosperous. She steals boat fare from her older sisters, hoping to succeed in England and send for her family. She arrives on the London docks in 1875 with nothing, speaking only Yiddish.
There, she is beguiled by a pawnbroker who assures her that he and other eastern European Jews will help her, see to it that she comes to no danger. He then sells her to a brothel operator. She is humiliated, beaten, broken and turned into a whore-slave. After six years, she escapes prostitution, becomes a seamstress and marries a struggling tailor.
In 1886, the other woman, Emilia Rosenberg, arrives from Minsk, on the same dock. She also has fled on her own. Her father is a callously abusive, prosperous notary, who has methodically tyrannized Emilia and her mother. Emilia arrives with a trunk full of high-fashion clothes, fluent in French and German as well as Yiddish, but with almost no money. She is pregnant, by a man at home who seduced but would not marry her.
Nehama spots Emilia on the docks and rescues her from the very man who had taken Nehama captive. She gives Emilia a place to sleep in the clothing-trade workrooms and living quarters Nehama shares with her husband. They become close. Nehama had previously miscarried, and cannot have another child. Emilia bears her own child, and then flees without a trace, leaving the baby with Nehama.
Nattel writes relentlessly of oppressively onerous, often brutalized, lives, of staggering human burdens. Her stories are very soberly told, but she can be deliciously wry. Emilia is struggling out of childbirth, giving up her child, confronting loneliness and fear. "Emilia closed her eyes to any such pity," Nattel writes. "She was not dying but merely suffering the ordinary fortune of every woman from the day that Eve was pushed out of her garden and realized that she must find a good address."
Nattel can make extraordinary poetry out of the most mundane. Nehama is using a community laundry: "Now she carried the sheets to the mangle, pushing them though the double rollers as she turned the handle. The mangle was green and gold and carved with angels. Who would think such a thing could be made for a washhouse in the middle of the meanest part of London? Next door in the costermongers' [fruit peddlers'] stables, the donkeys were braying. When darkness fell, in a thousand dirty windows, eight candles would be lit to remember the miracle of light while in the street children playing kick the can would bring back the sun by booting it into the sky."
Emilia disappears into a very different part of London, respectable and well populated by artists and intellectuals. She wears a small gold cross, presenting herself as a gentile, and gets a sales job in a curio shop, where a customer, Jacob Zalkind, a newspaper columnist and playwright who is a very secular Jew, meets and woos her. He introduces her to his parents. They marry.
The book moves toward its end at the turn of the century, with both women still in London. They no longer are in touch, living in starkly different circumstances. The baby has become Nehama's child. Emilia is expecting another.
Nattel's research into London of the last quarter of the 19th century, and her intricate knowledge of Judaism -- both religious formalities and secular folk practices -- are formidably impressive. Both are richly provident to the stories. The power that Judaism provides the narrative is not as a matter of theological or ethnic curiosity, but rather as a mirror and amplifier of the profoundest of universal human circumstances -- hopes, fears and inevitabilities. The almost infinitely intricate details of the religious year and the customs associated with its historic points are wonderfully spiritually muscular.
The human truths that are explored could be as well found among Christians or Hindus. And, equally, the elaborate setting of London, both miserably poor and lushly bourgeois, has universality. The gradations of poverty in London, the specifics of small shops and the proclivities of shopkeepers come vibrantly alive, but it is imaginable that the tales could unfold in a dozen other complex cities.
As the novel moves toward its finish, it gains intensity and suspense. Both of these entirely human women confront the meanings of their lives, their relationships with others, their purposes of being. The complex parallels that join them remain the armature of the book itself.
It is a moving novel, a rich exploration of human conditions that are far deeper and broader than the specifics of time, place and culture. Nattel is an extraordinary novelist -- an artist working diligently beyond the providence of her impressive historic and social scholarship. This book is lushly layered in its exploration of the most essential truths and ambiguities of life. And finally, as I believe all great art is, it is redeeming. It should please -- challenge and reward -- any serious reader of prose fiction.