Weary of the usual bookstore fare? There’s a book out there to tell you a story you have not heard before, which no reader of John Grisham can say. It’s nice to read a first novel that makes you wait impatiently for the author’s next work. The Bone Weaver by Victoria Zackheim starts off with neurotic Mimi, an academic mourning the death of her best friend – nearly her only friend. She chafes at what she sees as the insensitivities of her mother Rivka, who barely registers a ripple at the loss her daughter is feeling. Mimi can hardly seem to breathe she so misses the advice that Sarah, the lost friend and sounding board, gave her.
Interspersed with Mimi’s life almost totally alone in LA are the stories of Rivka’s clan. Rivka’s grandmother and family live in a community of Jews forced out of the mainstream of society near Warsaw. The pogroms just beyond the horizon fill one with a sense of dread, given what the coming 20th century will end up doing to the Jews in Poland. But the shtetl village is a living organism.
There is a stark contrast between the Mimi chapters, where she lives a solitary life in modern LA, pushing away one living friend she has, berated by the deceased Sarah in her mind. She thinks of her mother Rivka trying to pry out the tale of her life understand her own.
It was this very silence that was pushing Mimi forward, urging her to uncover and comprehend all those things that her mother refused to tell.
Four generations of women, she thought, and I am the last. Malka, Fredl, Rivka, and me. And not the last to date, but the last ever. An only child, a woman with no children; the end of the line. Malka, Fredl, Rivka, Mimi. Period. If only she could understand why it ended here.
Malka, the great-grandmother to Mimi, dwells in Nowy Zycie, near Warsaw. The clan makes the best of life they can, with hints around the edges of the dangers that gradually close in around them. A book-loving daughter, Fredl, is not pleased to learn she is to be given away in an arranged marriage, but a twist takes the story to places not expected. At times it felt as if the story from Nowy Zycie was utterly alien to Mimi’s modern isolation. But the severely limited choices faced by the elder generations, where they made the best life they could, makes all the more strange Mimi’s inability to decide on a course, given her freedoms. Zackheim manages to capture living inside of not just grief, but shock; Mimi wonders if she has lived half a life, with Sarah living the rest for her. Delving into the past seems to give her something to hold onto.
In Nowy Zycie, Zackheim describes the lives of the clan engagingly, from the great-grandfather extending too much credit to his beleaguered neighbours to Malka worrying over hot embers at night. They plan, they live, they struggle mightily to make their children’s lives happy. The tale becomes so entrancing that the flashes back to modern day LA at times are unwelcome, unless considered as a single thread of life leading to Mimi. As this builds, it gives added gravity to Mimi’s drift, contemplating all the sorrow of her ancestors that have built a wall around her mother.
Rivka emerges in the story and her distance from everyone – her husband included – becomes more understandable against the violent anti-Semitic Russia where she lived. Does Mimi echo Fredl, her grandmother who was lost in grief of her own? It is hard to explain how one woman’s grief could be at all assuaged by the sometimes horrific fates of her female predecessors. Do their dreams and vitality go beyond death, just in memory, and help Mimi move beyond her own losses? Easy answers are not forthcoming – grief is not shown as easy or a puzzle to solve, which is refreshing.
The most distant part of the book for the present-day reader is life in a shtetl community of oppressed Jews in premodern Europe. Victoria Zackheim focuses on the intricacies of their lives, and the basic economics that help. She effectively describes a world almost forgotten, almost erased. Each ordinary thing does not have the feel of a forced history lesson, but gives unique voices a chance to speak, and of course occasionally complain. The flashbacks have an intensity predicated on simple feelings, and events like dinner on the Sabbath with a guest sit you at the table awaiting fate. The emotional toll is grave enough that the actual violence itself is mostly offstage, and nothing compared with the havoc wreaked in the characters you watch grow with the trepidation of a Jewish mom. Tears are to be found here, to be sure.
The story has two timelines, from modern LA to Nowy Zycie. At first I found the jumps between the timelines jarring, but this may be part of the intent. It comes together not in a showy method of revealing secrets, but a complex emotional history. After finishing, it becomes an inescapable thought that the story could only have been told in this manner. The style does not attempt to show off, but the prose builds a set of lives to study that seem unlike anything that was invented, but flawed, fascinating characters. Zackheim writes – very well, I might add – in a way about grief that reflects it directly, being a confused and unfocused, unforgiving state of mind. Mostly from Mimi’s perspective, you are in a place from which you want to escape at times, but cannot find a path. The tale of the prior generations is so full of life it nearly eclipses the horrors they suffer. Finding strength beyond sorrow is a tricky game, and in her first novel she plays it in top form. Nowy Zycie will echo long after you have heard it’s tale, and it’s conclusion.