Monday, April 5, 2010
It took months (I don't know why) for Lilian Nattel's The River Midnight to make its way from a warehouse to my home. I took this remarkable novel with me, on a brief weekend respite—read it on the shaded front porch of a bed and breakfast, then finished it here, this morning.
I'd been so eager to read Lilian's book because I'm a huge fan of her blog (subtitled "Curious and Amazed"), which is rich with ideas, opinions, research, and stunning found photography. The first time I visited Lilian's blog she was posting about an aurora borealis. Since then she's written of politics, of neighborhood walks, of science and of illuminating strands of research, of children, of books she's loved and of books she's writing.
The River Midnight was Lilian's first book, published more than ten years ago. It's the story of a Polish village called Blaszka—the story of the strong-minded women and sometimes secretly self-doubting men who tangle up with each other, who defy or who are defined by shtetl culture, and who seem catapulted forward toward some selfish choice, but who mostly opt, in the end, for community. At the center of it all is the midwife, Misha, who collects and keeps the villagers' secrets, and who struggles with her own.
As a writer, I am in awe of the structure of this book—each story getting told, then told again from a different angle, a different perspective. We think we know how a tale turns out; when we are told it again—through another's eyes, from another time—it's richer than we'd first imagined and infused, in subtle ways, with magic. Despite the large cast of characters and percolating conflicts, The River Midnight does not sprawl. It merely grows more concentrated. It is a hugely accomplished novel.