The Mystics of Mile End: A Novel, by Sigal Samuel, (William Morrow Paperbacks), 320 pages, release date 13 October, 2015
The Mystics of Mile End is a rich and satisfying novel in a number of ways. It juxtaposes Jewish mysticism and rationalism; it presents a world populated by a mix of hipsters and conservative Jews; it explores the crisis moments in life that can lead to an embrace or rejection of faith; it contrasts scientifically based narrative with the narrative of the Torah and Kabbalah. Add to this the fact that it’s narrated in four different voices and what the reader encounters is a world that’s new at every turn.
The Meyer family has lost its mother, and her sudden death leaves not just a gap in the family, but unresolved questions of faith. Her husband, David, an academic, has rejected the conservative Judaism they once shared, replacing it with a rigid rationalism. Samara, the oldest of the two siblings has chosen to secretly prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, a ritual her father has refused to allow her to participate in. Younger brother Lev lives a sort of dual existence, attending Hebrew school in the afternoons, then hanging out with his best friend, who is obsessed with astronomy. He embraces faith and science, without seeing the potential conflicts between them.
This is the situation at the novel’s start. Samuel takes us through years of this family’s life as its members move toward and away from their original faith. At the center of this to-and-fro movement is the Tree of Life—a mystical construction embodying God’s creative energy and the human spirit. Each of the novel’s central characters undertakes a study of the Tree: Lev as a part of his Hebrew school lessons; David after a heart attack; Samara in an attempt to understand her father; and Lev’s astronomer friend in an attempt to understand Samara, for whom he has an unrequited love.
Spending time in the world of Mile End offers readers food for both the heart and mind. This is the sort of story you’ll find yourself turning over as you fall asleep at night, reflecting on the philosophical walls each character builds to circumscribe her/his world and the things that can happen as the foundations of these walls are gradually undermined.
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