There is a genre of fiction–perhaps “subgenre” is more accurate–that might be termed “Jewish fantasy.” Like the folktales on which they draw, entries in the genre hover between magical realism, the tragic, and the absurd. The Golem & the Jinni (2013) is a recent (and popular) example, as is Michael Chabon’s alternate history, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). Because Jewish fantasy imposes on readers certain special requirements, for instance, rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, the genre is not for everyone. At least one acquaintance of this reviewer couldn’t finish The Yiddish Policemen’s Union because it was “too Jewish,” by which he meant it included too many things about which he knew too little, Yiddishisms, of course, but also obscure religious concepts likely only to be understood by Jews and those non-Jews with an interest in religion. This is a difficult hurdle to cross. Helene Wecker circumvented it by minimizing her novel’s “Jewishness”; Chabon, macher that he is, went all in. Stephanie Feldman treads a careful middle ground in her debut novel, The Angel of Losses (2014, Deckle Edge).
When Marjorie and her sister, Holly, were children, their Grandpa Eli told them wondrous stories about the White Magician. Now an adult, studying for a PhD in literature, Marjorie misses the sweetness of that time in one’s childhood when, in retrospect, things seem to have been perfect, just the way they were meant to be. Life has moved on in unexpected ways, as life often does. Eli turned mean in his old age, moved out of the family’s house, died. Holly defied her family by converting to orthodox Judaism for love, and marrying Nathan, a member of the Berukhim (roughly, “blessed ones”) sect.
Holly is pregnant, and she and Nathan need to move Eli’s things to make room for the baby. With that in mind, Marjorie rushes to what once was her family’s house–now alien, rearranged for Jewish needs, like keeping kosher–to rescue the notebooks in which Eli recorded his stories of the White Magician. Only something is wrong; the notebook she finds mentions not the White Magician, but the “White Rebbe.” (The term “rebbe” is related to “rabbi.” Its meaning is more general; rather than referring to a clerical office, which it can, it may also indicate a spiritual leader, and so on. Regardless, it is a honorific.) But Marjorie recalls her Grandpa dimly eyeing the orthodox Jews in town and complaining about “those people.” Clearly, things weren’t quite what they appeared.
That’s a lot of exposition in order to review a book that isn’t 300 pages long, but I think it demonstrates the quandary in which writers of Jewish fantasy find themselves. The size of their potential readership is inversely proportional to the degree of Jewish detail they incorporate into their story. Feldman is clever: She begins with a non-Jewish character, Marjorie, who is writing a dissertation on the trope of the “Wandering Jew,” and whose sister is a convert to Judaism. Explication of potentially bewildering topics, then, is embedded in the nature of the story. In the opinion of this reader, Feldman deftly avoids “infodumps” by working details into the natural course of characters’ conversations. There are, of course, some awkward moments. The descriptions of the database on which Simon, Marjorie’s love interest, is working–an application that permits users to track worldwide Jewish “wandering–may cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. (But it was like candy to this graduate of history and library science programs.)
The story alternates between Eli’s diaries and Marjorie’s narration, a structure that should work, but which this reader found frustrating. Folktales are simplistic by nature, and, by mimicking that quality in the chapters devoted to Eli, the narrative, at times, becomes jumbled. It is difficult for the reader to differentiate from one another characters that are rendered in brief. Is this guy the one who…no, that’s the other one. Later in the narrative, as the mystery of the White Rebbe is revealed, all becomes clear, and the identities of characters are sorted out. Readers should prepare themselves for some potential early confusion, though.
Feldman’s real strength is her portrayals of her characters. Marjorie, the very definition of a “type A” personality, is a bit of a pill. Her resentment, distrusting relationship with Nathan is well-drawn. Likewise, Feldman masterfully draws Nathan as the stereotypical ultra-orthodox Jew, distant and studious, only to subvert that image as the story progresses. Holly is a particularly engaging character, an artist and free spirit who took upon herself a lifestyle that Marjorie perceives as constrictive. Indeed, female readers who have a sister will find in the dynamics of Marjorie’s and Holly’s relationship much with which to identify.
The Angel of Losses is well told and engaging, and compensates for its early structural weaknesses with gorgeous prose and identifiable characters. For those readers sensitive to it, religion is present, although it is treated either, in folktale form, as “magic,” or as a source of family contention. Marjorie, for instance, perceives Holly to be subservient to her “patriarch,” Nathan. Ultimately, it is family, and family drama, that is the driver of Feldman’s narrative, and that’s something to which every reader can relate. A promising debut, The Angel of Losses is especially recommended to readers who love folktales and strong female characters.