A Novel By

317 pages,
ISBN: 096843360X

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First Novels - Novel Ideas for 1999
by Diana Brebner

We are very happy to introduce Diana Brebner as our new First Novels' Editor. Diana is an Ottawa resident and graduate of the University of Ottawa, where she studied philosophy. Her poetry has appeared in such magazines as The Malahat Review, Event, Grain, The New Quarterly, and Poetry Canada. She has published three volumes of verse, including the award-winning Radiant Life Forms (1990) and The Golden Lotus (1993). She has also written reviews, literary essays, and short fiction, and performed with the trio, "Fearful Symmetry". Currently, she is working on another book of poetry and several fiction manuscripts.

What's a novel for? Some still hold with the notion that a novel should instruct and delight. But who wants to eat dessert flavoured with cod-liver oil? There is much to praise in Lilian Nattel's The River Midnight (Knopf Canada, 414 pages, $32 cloth) and, as a first novel, it is an admirable accomplishment. Nattel's magic brings to life the world of late nineteenth-century Poland and the fictional village of Blaszka, a Yiddish shtetl. We see the villager's world from different perspectives, but the main focus is on the lives and loves of four women who were known in their youth as the vilda hayas, "the wild creatures". Nattel's portrait of village life is robust and filled with rich detail.

There are, however, two aspects of the book that are less successful. Two angels, roaming about the Polish countryside, appear and disappear throughout the story. While I can appreciate their function in the novel, as it is written, the book does not need this supernatural element; the story of the villagers is sufficient in its own right. Nattel also has a habit of connecting up events and individuals in Blaszka with people and events of the harrowing twentieth century. This left me wondering if she felt that the villagers were not interesting for who they were, but only important because of the larger historical context in which they were unwitting players. This is the cod-liver oil aspect of the book, and one hopes that Nattel will come to realize that the gift of an intelligent, well-written story needs no justification.

The dust jacket gurus at Knopf Canada tell us that Lilian Nattel's work brings to mind the writing of Isabel Allende, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and E.L. Doctorow. Enough already! I prefer to make up my own mind about such things. I found myself going back to Allende's House of Spirits and Eva Luna, and re-reading Singer's depictions of Polish village life. Nattel has written a fine book, but to set her writing up against Allende, Singer, and Doctorow is unrealistic and ultimately unfair to the author. In its humour, gentleness, and insight into human nature, I would compare Nattel's The River Midnight to Thomas Hardy's loving remembrance of English country life, Under The Greenwood Tree. Not even the faintest whiff of cod-liver oil in Hardy's story.


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