By Amy Bloom
Random House / 256 pages / $23.95
Immigration is a hot political topic these days, with relatively few taking the side of the immigrant. Amy Bloom's exquisite new novel, however, is an immigrant's tale that would wring tears from a stone. Away makes one think and feel like an immigrant, instead of as the suspicious isolationist nativists many of us have come to be.
Away details Lillian Leyb's journey to America from Turov, Russia, in the early 1920s, when pogroms were still a commonplace in the newly Soviet countryside and Ellis Island opened its welcoming arms to many yearning to breathe free.
The first 10 pages of Away are gut-wrenching and harrowing as they begin the page-turning tale of Lillian's escape from Russia and her hopes for a new, less hellish future and a clean slate in life. Bloom does many marvelous things with this immigrant tale, but what is perhaps most eloquent is how she evokes the intimate details of what it is to be displaced from one's country.
Lorraine Adams' brilliant and sadly underrated 2004 novel Harbor also detailed the exigencies of the immigrant, to startling and grim effect. But where Harbor was icily and scarily about immigration in a post-Sept. 11 world, Bloom takes us back to the early 1920s when the transition from immigrant to native seemed more possible and more smooth. Where Adams detailed another side of our own world, Bloom leads us into what seems a distant, distant land not quite our own.
That, of course, is romantic revisionist thinking. The life of an immigrant was never easy, never smooth. And Bloom rips the veneer off that supposition to reveal all that is raw and destructive beneath.
What Bloom evokes are the awesome perils of being a stranger in a strange land, even if it is one's choice to be in that land. The suspicions on both sides. The fear. The poverty. The loss. The lack of any sense of the familiar. The emptiness. The longing.
I was sitting outside on a hot August evening reading Bloom's novel when two women came out of an apartment building a few doors down from where I was perched. Each lit a cigarette, inhaled, sat down on the stoop, turned directly toward me and then began speaking to the other excitedly in Russian.
Where the novel made me consider the position of the immigrant, this little interlude, juxtaposed against what I was reading, made me feel a wholly new level of empathy. I know no Russian beyond the cursory hellos and thank-yous and vodka toasts. So as I sat there, a novel about a Russian emigre on my lap, it was I who was the stranger. Even if I had wanted to eavesdrop, I couldn't. They could have been talking about me the entire while, and I would have had no clue. I wasn't Lillian Leyb, but suddenly, I felt like crying.
Amy Bloom brings the immigrant experience that vividly to life, and it is rarely as benign a life as that small moment in my own.
Lillian Leyb has bad dreams. Lots of them. She dreams of hands chopped off by axes on the floor of the home she shared with her father and husband and 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. Her home where a privacy curtain becomes stained with blood and everything runs red -- the axe in her father's head, the blood on her husband's nightshirt. Her father was deemed the Jew who cursed another farmer's livestock. And then all were dead, except her.
It is this scene of which she dreams again and again in the little cot she's been offered by a cousin on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where one of her first sights is of a middle-age woman sitting on a chair on the sidewalk in a nightgown and overcoat, crying onto a plate of coins. The woman's been evicted from her tenement flat for nonpayment of rent. She is homeless and alone. She is a frightening portent of what could happen to the young Lillian of she doesn't make America work for her like Russia never did.
But Lillian is smart, pretty and, as her father once told her, lucky, which was better than either looks or brains. And because she survived the massacre of her family, luck does indeed seem to follow her.
She also has chutzpah. She gets a job by speaking directly to the boss at a Yiddish theater in Yiddish and in Russian, telling him she can sew any costume and that she is "taking night classes," a phrase she has been taught to parrot. He admires her boldness and hires her from among the scores who have come seeking work.
Time passes, life begins to change. Lillian isn't just working for the Bursteins at the Yiddish Theatre -- she's mistress to both father, Reuben, and son, Meyer, the better to get ahead in America, the better to use all her skills at reinvention in the New World.
But Lillian's dreams keep coming. And then one day Lillian's whole world shifts: "Sophie might be alive." What began as a quest for a new life in which she tried to blot out memories of the old now becomes a quest to recapture the most precious thing she lost: her daughter.
Her best friend in New York, a tailor and writer, Yaakov Shimmelman, gives her two things: a thesaurus, entree to the world of English, and passage to Siberia to find her daughter and re-enter the best part of her old life.
Away is filled with such acts of bittersweet kindness. Lillian heads west, as so many immigrants have done. She lands in Seattle, where she becomes part of a community more different than any she's known. The African-American jazz scene is evoked with such precision and vibrance that one can almost taste the alcohol and smoke at the back of the throat.
Then it's on to the Yukon and yet another path toward Lillian's ultimate quest.
Bloom has always had a keen grasp of complexities of love -- filial, familial, romantic. In her short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, the title story was another tale of unbreakable maternal love that superseded all obstacles. Away has sweep, power, love, lust, reinvention, quest. It is an epic novel on a small and visceral scale. Lillian Leyb is an extraordinary character: heroine and bad girl, with an incendiary passion for life that is matched only by her love for her daughter. People often talk of their willingness to die for love; Bloom scripts what that really feels like, what it means to be pushed to the edge of hope and life and love, searching for what must be found.
Away is a novel filled with all the contradictions of life in a world that cannot be controlled. It is a tale grounded in a lush, gorgeous, panoramic view of America as seen through the eyes of a young immigrant who has seen more than anyone should ever have to see of the worst life has to offer.
This, without doubt, is Bloom's finest, most extraordinary work. A singular, eloquent read.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. Her most recent publication is "The Golden Age of Lesbian Erotica: 1920-1940." She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.