In Margot Singer’s debut fiction collection, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, $24.95), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, nine connecting stories peel back the history and myths of protagonist Susan Stern and her family: an interconnected net of women and men, Israelis and secular Jews, in places as far-flung as Jerusalem, Manhattan, Haifa, Katmandu, Berlin, the archeological ruins of the Galilee and the checkpoints in Gaza.
In “Helicopter Days,” we learn that Susan, now a journalist in Manhattan, spent childhood summers with her parents in their native Haifa, which Susan visits and revisits as an adult. Her cousin Gaby, whom she adores, is in the midst of his military service during the 1982 Intifada. He is clearly affected by the trauma, which he can’t address. Gaby and other young soldiers like him reappear in these stories. So does the beauty of Haifa: “In her memory, Susan is standing at the Panorama Street railing looking down at the Carmel onto the golden dome of the Baha’i Temple, the elaborate sloping gardens lined with cypresses, the red roofs of the German Colony, the cluster of tall buildings on the Hadar.”
Haifa and Susan’s extended family are woven again and again into this book. In “Lila’s Story,” Susan’s grandmother’s life unfolds from the time before the establishment of the Jewish State, through the hardships and on to better times, as Susan tries to use old photos and old dramas as clues or guideposts to decode her own life. On a group trek to Katmandu in “Borderland,” Susan has a short, slightly creepy dalliance with Dubi, a young Israeli border guard who had mistreated Arabs during his army service. Dubi vanishes from the trek along with the watch that was an inheritance from Susan’s grandmother.
The title of this collection is taken from the name of the western border region of the Russian Empire, where Jews were required to live during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Singer deftly portrays characters and situations that involve grappling with borders — coming of age, romantic entanglements, family feuds and frustrations, religion and secularism, and the elusive definition of “home.”
The yearning for independence and the effort to sustain an identity pulsate throughout these masterful stories. A talented artist of the Jewish scene in Israel and the Diaspora, Singer is a new writer to savor.
Molly Abramowitz is a freelance writer and who divides her time between Silver Spring MD and Jerusalem.