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Jewish Heroines in Victorian London

In her acclaimed first novelThe River Mid night, Toronto author Lilian Mattel delin- eated the complex relationships among the men and women living in a Polish village at the turn of the last century. Her second work of fiction is even more ambitious, spanning 25 years in the same era. The Singing Fire explores gender, class and ethnicity in the lives of two Jewish female immigrants who reinvent themselves soon after landing in England.

From the outset, the heroines strive to eradicate the past, but for different reasons. Still in her teens, Nechamah leaves Poland to escape a circumscribed life and the suffocating influence of her sisters; however, after arriving in the East End of London, she inadvertently turns to prostitution. The other protagonist, Emilia, is the daughter of a wealthy, but what we would now term dysfunctional, family. Masquerading as a young widow, she flees Russia to avoid her father’s wrath after becoming pregnant with her tutor’s child. With few options available, Emilia uses her beauty to entrench her position in the British upper class. By contrast, Nechamah relies on her wits and audacity for survival. The women remain strangers for the first hundred pages until they meet when Nechamah rescues Emilia. From that point on, their lives become inextricably bound by Emilia’s daughter, Gittel.

The novel examines the values of two characters from different levels of society. Ironically, Emilia leads an emotionally bankrupt existence because of her choices, while Nehama’s life, despite the poverty, is arguably more fulfilling. In Nattel’s words, “she had everything and nothing. A home…a place in the world, all of it secondhand like the shabby goods in the rag market.”

While Nattel’s first book hinted at the spirit world, the supernatural makes a more palpable appearance in The Singing Fire (Knopf Canada, $35). The ghost of her father’s first wife presides over the significant events in Emilia’s life. Nehama often hears the voice of her grandmother, whose strength of character and love of singing provide a role model and source of encouragement in her moments of adversity.

Nattel convincingly portrays London during the Victorian era, from the sights, sounds and smells in the streets to the distinctive cadences of the language. She also incorporates plot elements about the needle trade, the literary community and the Yiddish theater. Readers, especially those with an interest in social history and immigration, certainly won’t be disappointed.

Bev Greenberg is a Canadian writer living in Winnipeg.