A tragic fire, a searing novel



Katharine Weber

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 244 pages / $23

The images are as unforgettable as they are horrific: Young women screaming, their hair and long skirts on fire. All around, the confluent smells of burning flesh and machine oil, enveloped in a smoke thick as fabric, choke the life from them.

It is March 25, 1911, and the most notorious fire in New York history is burning at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.. Before nightfall, 146 workers, nearly all immigrant women under 25, will be dead. They will have been burned alive or plunged to their deaths from the ninth floor, their badly charred or still-perfect bodies shattered on the sidewalks below - a plethora of immigrant girls dead because the doors were locked, the fire escapes were fragile and the bosses simply didn't care.

In Triangle, Katharine Weber's superb new novel, Esther Gottesfeld is one of the few survivors of that harrowing day. Then only 16, a Jewish girl from Pinsk, Belarus, she witnesses her younger sister, Pauline, and fiance, Sam, perish in the blaze that has historically been credited with forcing the institution of safe workplace conditions in sweatshops.

Esther, pregnant at the time of the fire, lives - scarred by more than the fire - to raise her son Isaac alone. When he and his wife are killed in a car crash, Esther raises their young daughter, Rebecca. Esther lives long - to 106 - dying just days before Sept. 11. Hers is a complicated life, filled with untold secrets and struggles, few of which she shares with anyone. This includes her granddaughter as well as a feminist scholar, Ruth Zion, researching a book on the fire, who interviews her at the Jewish home where she has lived for 20 years. The self-absorbed yet detail-conscious Ruth keeps quizzing Esther on hazy points she refuses to discuss; Ruth continues to seek answers from Rebecca even after Esther's death.

Rebecca and her grandmother are bonded by their tragedies and their genes. (Rebecca is a Yale geneticist.) The third member of their triangle is Rebecca's partner of 20 years, George Botkin, a MacArthur Fellow and world-class composer known for his searing works predicated on DNA strands, polypeptides, Fibonacci numbers and Sierpinski triangles.

Triangles are the central metaphor of Weber's extraordinary novel. There are Esther, George and Rebecca. There were Esther, Pauline and Sam. There are the fire, George's music and Rebecca's research. There are Esther, Ruth and Rebecca. And like Sierpinski sequences, the triangles interface to become yet more triangles: the three bosses at the factory, the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney at the trial arising from the fire, Esther's three recitations of her testimony, and more.

Weber's story is itself a Sierpinski triangle - a triangle within a triangle within a triangle. Esther's story would seem to dominate, but George often appears the book's true protagonist: It is his music that will deconstruct and reconstruct the triangular puzzle of the fire, Esther's survival and Rebecca's family history.

Despite the historical facts at the core of Triangle, Weber has crafted a true mystery: Much is hidden in the ashes of that fire as well as in the double helixes of George and Rebecca's lives. Ruth may be the catalyst for the discovery of the truth, but George actualizes it through an oratorio, a gift of love to Rebecca, Esther and all the dead victims. (Weber's musical nuances are flawless - you can almost hear George's constructions.)

An ironist who plays with ideas, stereotypes and history in equal measure, Weber has a subtle playfulness that might skim right past the less observant reader, particularly in the discourse on George's work or the seeming caricature of Ruth.

But in Triangle nothing can be taken at face value; subtext is layered upon subtext, with interstices of irony and tragedy, just as the Greeks did it - replete with chorus. Although some readers may discern the imbedded truth about Esther and the fire midpoint in the book, the cataclysmic finale will nevertheless prove immensely satisfying and deeply, almost unbearably moving. Triangle is a strange, haunting and utterly compelling work that will linger long, like smoke after a fire.

Victoria A. Brownworth is a syndicated columnist and the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Day of the Dead and Other Stories."

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