Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Emuna Elon's House on Endless Waters, a unique and ruminative WWII novel

Yoel Blum, a prominent Israeli writer, had promised his mother that he’d never visit Amsterdam, the city where he was born. But she has passed on, and when his agent persuades him to attend a literary event there at his Dutch publisher’s invitation, he feels obliged to accept. Yoel knows little about the circumstances of his birth, other than that his mother left the Netherlands with him and his older sister, Nettie, during WWII, never speaking of the place where she lost her husband and other relatives.

While there, Yoel and his wife, Bat-Ami, pay a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum and, in a film clip from a long-ago wedding, catch a glimpse of his mother as a young woman with her husband and daughter, and holding an unfamiliar male infant. This spurs Yoel to visit Nettie back in Israel to find out who the baby was. The startling story Nettie tells him inspires him to return to Amsterdam alone, several days later, on a journey to research and craft a very personal novel he feels will be his most significant work.

Elon chooses to withhold the full details of Nettie’s revelations, a decision that feels frustrating initially for a character-centered literary novel, since it creates even more distance between readers and the protagonist. Yoel, we learn, has closed himself off emotionally throughout his life, even from his wife, children, and grandchildren. But what the author does instead is use a technique, I decided later, that proves to be much more original.

While perambulating around Amsterdam and observing venues central to his family story, Yoel hand-writes scenes for his novel in a series of notebooks. These imagined scenes follow his young mother, Sonia, who he now feels he never really knew; her physician husband, Eddy; and their two young children, who live in a basement apartment owned by a wealthy couple, the de Langes, as increasing restrictions are imposed upon Amsterdam’s Jewish residents. Both families believe they’ll be immune from the dreadful events happening to Jews elsewhere.

Yoel’s thoughts and experiences are closely intercut with episodes from his manuscript, which increases the pacing of this ruminative work and creates continual interactions between today and the past, often multiple times in the same chapter. This enhances Elon’s themes about the long-term effects of trauma, the suffering and persecution carved into Jewish collective memory, and mothers’ desperate instincts to protect their children. For me, one aspect of the mystery in Yoel’s past was never in doubt from one point forward, but the images of wartime Amsterdam are beautifully evoked and heart-rending.

House on Endless Waters, translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yichiel, will be published by Atria/S&S on January 7th; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.

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