Saturday, May 21, 2016

Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

 Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope (Fig Tree Books, 2014)

I’ve always thought great literature charts the history of missed connections—and the human struggle to repair lost opportunities or absent relations. From Odysseus’s wandering return to Ithaca, to Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, to the social and familial alienation of Leopold Bloom, the poignancy of literary art often comes from the longings and lamentations over what-might-have-been.

Missed connections form the heart of Safekeeping, a beautiful novel by Jessamyn Hope that spans the centuries but centres largely on a kibbutz near Mt. Carmel in the mid 1990s. I’d picked up the book, of course, when I learned of its kibbutz focus, especially the setting of a community on the verge of privatization. But I fell under the spell of Hope’s storytelling, characterization and unexpected shifts in narrative focus, even as I enjoyed how she wove the history of the kibbutz movement and the state of Israel into her novel’s backstory.

The missed connections—and the emotional turmoil they cause—are plentiful in Safekeeping, and most gravitate around a mysterious brooch, made by a Jewish goldsmith in the 14th century, of great value and even greater personal significance. There are missed connections between a grandfather and grandson in New York City; a father and son in the same district; a kibbutz-founding mother and her privatization-minded son in Israel; two pairs of star-cross’d lovers—a Chernobyl-scarred immigrant and a Palestinian-Israeli, a thirty-year-old French Canadian who has grown up in a mental asylum and a teenage kibbutz musician disfigured in a terrorist attack; and the equally secretive affair between a Holocaust survivor and a kibbutz pioneer during the turbulent birth of a nation.

The brooch acts as an objective correlative to evoke this sense of missed connections even as it joins the disparate characters and historical timelines of the story, like E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the movie The Red Violin. But Hope never overplays the brooch’s symbolic significance, and many of the characters resist its allure in interesting ways while others let its raw worth corrupt their personalities.

The main narrative follows Adam, a young recovering alcoholic haunted by many mistakes, through his months as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the Galilee on a mission, to return the brooch to a once-intended-recipient, whose importance even he doesn’t fully understand. Some of the most powerful scenes, however, are short interruptions or epilogues to the story of Adam and his grandfather. In one, Hope vividly evokes the horrors and desperation of a Black Plague pogrom—and the act that sets the novel’s drama in motion.

History otherwise works in the background to the characters’ lives: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the Oslo Accords and bus bombings of the 1990s, the divided reaction to the Jewish State around the world, the rise and decline of the kibbutz movement as a society of equals. There’s a depth of research, but Hope never forces it upon her readers or her characters. Toward the book’s end, the vote about privatization on the novel’s kibbutz feels, in fact, anti-climactic. More important are the last actions of her cast of characters—and whether they can breach those missed connections that have left them alone, deeply damaged or both. Some do. Some don’t. We are often left to imagine how key figures manage the trajectory of their lives, rather than having it all spelled out for us by the book’s final pages.

And the conclusion is a masterful exercise in surprise and indirection—a novelistic risk that pays off—that left me thinking and rethinking about all the characters and their decisions that had populated my imagination for the past two weeks.

Come for the kibbutz content. Stay for the storytelling. Safekeeping is a book that you will want to pass along to friends and relations, like a small heirloom too beautiful to keep to yourself.

1 comment:

  1. A Kibbutz in Israel would be the best. I see so much land that just grows grass that needs to be mowed. It requires significant gas powered mowers, overseeding, fertilizing, and chemical treatments like herbicide, pesticide, and toxic chemicals that destroy water systems. If it were my land, I would grow barley and wild rice. I would recycle the straw back as ground cover, and I would save seeds in clay pellets, seeding over areas for 30-50 year farm plans. I have a small foot-powered thresher that I would use. I don't need huge industrial agriculture equipment. Barley is the kind of crop that would feed smart vegetarian immigrants to Israel. I have some sacred seeds, ground cover to protect the land from the Sun… white clover, heirloom barley seeds, and the kind of wild rice that grows easily here. Kibbutz living today is getting more to like permaculture, non-commercial farming techniques that benefit only the local community. We don't need to till or overturn the soil, or to fertilize with chemicals, or to waste annual funding on seeds, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. To be honest, I don't think I would even require petrochemicals at all, except maybe some lamp oil. We could be completely self-sustaining and earth-friendly. I will try to lead by example, be true, and brave. Trading healthy and local, nutritious crops for whatever you want, including stone, wood, labor. Somehow glorifying something ancient and projecting into a wise and powerful future for Israel.