Lilian Nattel has written another remarkable novel set in a historic Jewish community -- the bustling alleys of London's East End in the late nineteenth century. In stunningly vivid prose, and with a touch of her trademark magical realism, Nattel brings the fin de siécle city to life -- whores and rabbis, street vendors and artists, sweatshops and Yiddish theatre.
Nehama and Emilia each arrive in London alone, naïve and full of dreams of independence. Each struggles to overcome her past and build a new life, Nehama in the Jewish ghetto and Emilia in the privileged West End. The Singing Fire is the tale of these two unforgettable women and the child that unites them. Nattel writes with immense compassion about points of human connection -- the kindness of strangers, the power of women's friendships, the bonds between mothers and daughters, and the importance of families -- the ones you are born to, the ones you discover, and the ones that you begin.
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The author of the bestselling novel The River Midnight ushers us from 19th-century Eastern Europe into the underbelly of London's landsman quarter in this sweeping, fin-de-siècle saga of two emigrant women and the child who unites them.
1886: The laneways of London's East End are littered with stubborn signs of survival: the steam from kettles of boiling laundry, the smokestacks belching coal dust, the chatter of tailors, piemen and thieves. Into this scene, full of dreams of independence, arrives a young Jewish woman, Nehama, who has crossed an ocean to flee the expectations of her family. But in between the bustle of marketstalls and industry are constituents less benign, some searching for easy targets. Nehama, unable to speak English, is enslaved as a prostitute, a fate much more vicious than the life she left behind. With only the whispers of her deceased grandmother to guide her, she contrives her escape into the narrow alleys of the respectable East End, a hand's breadth away from the criminal warrens.
Those brutal memories enable her to help another runaway, Emilia, who arrives in London similarly ill-prepared, and pregnant. But Emilia refuses a hardscrabble life, seeking refuge among the privileged classes at the expense of her religion and even her baby, Gittel. As the two women walk their own separate paths, Gittel becomes their nexus; and Nehamah and Emilia arrive in places that hold some common ground.
Lilian Nattel masterfully brings to life a vanished world and the education of two determined women navigating a dangerous realm. Embracing the dilemmas of class, gender, culture and history, The Singing Fire marries Isabel Allende's magical touch with a unique imagination and a fearless voice.
It was Saturday night in the Lane, meaning Petticoat Lane and all its contiguous streets. . . . In the dusk there were crowds of buyers and sellers, and between the stalls, one man juggled fire and another swallowed it. The fortune teller's bird picked out cards with its beak and every card told a fortune. Signs advertised marvels. . . . Magic firelight that a little child could use. Medicine sure to cure the ills of all five million cells in the human body. Here you could buy used goods of every kind, except for one thing. Even in the rain there was a queue for it. . . . -- from The Singing Fire
From the Hardcover edition.
"Marvelous...vibrant....Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that’s never simply for laughs ... and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge. Beautifully-written, strongly imagined and deeply felt." -- Kirkus Reviews
Praise for The River Midnight:
“Nattel has the gift not only of telling the truth about women’s lives but the rarer gift of creating a world the reader can live inside. . . . Radiant and magical.” -- Toronto Star
“Richly imagined, sensuous in its details, spiced with energetic dialogue, The River Midnight offers pleasures on every page.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez’s Macondo, Nattel’s imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance [and] the brilliantly patterned minutiae of daily life.” -- TIME
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