This is the story of a close knit Jewish family in London and how they cope with a lunatic family member. Rabbi Zweck has a brilliant son,Norman, who brings honor and fame to his parents by learning many languages at a very young age. His achievements continue to draw accolades from the Jewish community in London when he becomes a very clever barrister. But when he succumbs to drug addiction and starts hallucinating about silver fish, his ruin becomes imminent. His promising career is destroyed and his suffering puts his aging father under a lot of shock, stress and pain.
From here on is revealed the story of Rabbi's wife, Sarah and his two daughters, Bella and Esther in relation to this family tragedy. Did everyone contribute a little in the making of this tragedy? Are their miseries there own making? Are the Zwecks really bad people? Read on to find out...
Well, the context is pretty universal- how we don't mean to do bad things but the inherent weakness in all of us results in weak actions which in turn bring a lot of misery to ourselves and our families. Into this universal theme is built in subtleties like Jewish-Christian religious prejudice, gender bias, peer pressure, societal expectations etc. One of London's minor communities, the Jewish community is studied at a very personal level and this study reveals Middleton's mastery over the subject.
The narrative begins in the middle of Norton's madness and proceeds with many flashbacks. In fact, almost all of the story is revealed to us in flashbacks. The voice is first person narrative, with the perspective shifting to each of the main characters in due course. Middleton gives almost equal weight to the view-point of each major character and each of them is allowed to justify his/her actions in the story.
Some Yiddish words are used throughout the narrative which require the reader to do some research on their meanings and cultural connotations. There are also some references to Jewish mythology which need follow up reading. However, in spite of these elements, the story remains a gripping and easy read.
While reading the book was an enjoyable experience, the book cannot be called a life changer. Personally I thought that Bella's character was most intriguing. On the one hand she devotes herself selflessly to the care of her family, on the other she is almost an accomplice in keeping her brother addicted. Though she seems normal to peer and family, she is as addicted to her spinsterhood as Norman is to drugs. She provides strong nursing support to Norman and Rabbi but she needs them constantly to serve as her source of sustenance. 'He had become a necessity for her, the sick Norman, the failed Norman, the scapegoat for all her unhappiness.'While all the other characters in the novel could be understood effortlessly, I found it difficult to grasp Bella's complexities.
Book Reviewed by Ashmita Saha
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