This stunning debut from a major new talent "brings to mind such diverse writers as Isabel Allende, E. L. Doctorow, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, though Ms. Nattel's sensibility is uniquely hers" (Julie Salamon). Combining prodigious research and a fevered imagination, The River Midnight brilliantly brings to life all the things that books about the shtetl have traditionally left out -- women's lives and women's prayers, sex, crime, the intimate details of everyday life.
Myth meets history in Blaszka, a fictional village northwest of Warsaw, where angels and demons walk in the fin de siècle shadows, enticing the people of Blaszka to face their deepest wishes and fears. Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, and in the center Misha the midwife laughing. She is a big, free, independent spirit in a world determined by strict rules -- men separated from women, meat from dairy, shabbes from everyday. When Misha was a girl she danced in the woods with her friends, the four vilda hayas, the "wild creatures" as they were known. But now the women have grown apart, divided by geography, by the pain of one's infertility next to the others' fecundity, and by love's demands.
The River Midnight is the incredibly engrossing and moving story of what happens when the town midwife becomes pregnant. Misha, the keeper of village secrets, will reveal to no one the biggest secret of all: the identity of the father to her unborn child. Do the men and women of Blaszka abandon Misha, who is the wayward heart of the village? Or do they come together and keep God waiting for their prayers?
This novel explores the tension between men and women, and celebrates the wordless and kinetic bond of friendship.
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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 GutersonFrom the Inside Flap:
Myth meets history in Blaszka, a fictional village in Poland and the site of this beautiful, multi-layered novel set in 1894. Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square, the flimsy stalls piled high with wares, and in the centre Misha the midwife laughing. The wayward heart of Blaszka, she holds safe all the local secrets, including the stories of the four vilda hayas, "the wild creatures," as she and her girlfriends were known. Although the women have grown apart, unexpected love, a daughter imprisoned, and two orphan children sent home from America, entwine their lives again - all as Europe moves headlong towards chaos.
In this magnificent novel of magic and mystery, Lilian Nattel has resurrected a vanished world that explores the tensions between men and women, and celebrates the wordless bonds of friendship in a way that is simply unparalleled.
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