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From Polish Shtetl to Capetown

A new setting for a familiar family saga

Maja Kriel, an author from South Africa, has been around the block and around the world. Or at least that is the impression she gives in her first novel, Rings in a Tree (Kwela Books, $23.95), in which her characters circumnavigate the globe. This peripatetic family saga begins in the tiny village of Sharabaka, Poland, where Chava and her best friend Wlad share the joys of the countryside:

They eat sour black bread with cheese
and cucumbers and drink sweet water
from the stream, feeding the crabs with
crumbs to watch them scuttle sideways
and nibble with trembling mandibles…
They have just found a glory hole
of colored stones, emeralds and rubies
and the smoothest granite with shards
of gold. A queen’s dowry, a pirate’s ransom,
but Chava only wants the plain
white stone shaped into a perfect heart.

Jews are not safe in Sharabaka, though, and soon Chava, her parents and sister Gittel leave for the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw; an older sister, Faiga, has run off to join a convent and remains there, never to communicate with them again.

In Warsaw, Chava is drawn to a young man who shares the family’s Sabbath dinners. The two marry and the locale abruptly changes again, this time to London, where Chava — now known as Eva and pregnant for a second time — must endure the lascivious groping of her boss while she labors making buttonholes in a sweatshop. Her husband leaves for Capetown, in search of work. She soon follows, only to discover that he has fallen sick and died before her arrival.

In the South African town of Kimberley, Eva marries Elias, a plump widower with daughters of his own, and the story shifts in focus again, this time to Eva’s son Max, as we watch the family in Johannesburg, New York, and back in Johannesburg. Max marries Hannah, a Russian immigrant with a deformed sister, and soon their daughter Amy dominates the story.

Kriel’s Jewish family saga lacks a discernible center. But its rich, densely studded prose, and its almost painful accretion of incident and details, render it an unusual and compelling read.