Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

Never underestimate the allure of symbolism, the gravitational tug of a good analogical image. This is our chief takeaway from Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel Safekeeping, a book steeped in Judaism, a religion and culture deeply reliant on the symbolic, on age-old images.

Hope actually employs two emblematic devices in her story: the first is a kibbutz called Sadot Hadar, where the majority of Safekeeping is set. Hope frames her kibbutz as a symbol for, and miniaturized parallel of, the state of Israel itself. Sadot Hadar has survived for decades as a socialist commune in the truest sense, but one, like Israel itself, under constant threat from the forces of change.

The second symbol is a centuries-old brooch, brought to the kibbutz in 1994 by a drug addict from New York City named Adam. The brooch in his possession is ancient and gorgeously crafted, and is probably meant to represent Jewish culture as a whole. Adam has come to Sadot Hadar for the sort of reason that only makes sense in overly self-conscious “literary” fiction: he wants to deliver this brooch, which belonged to his now-dead grandfather, to a woman named Dagmar, an old flame that his grandfather had on the kibbutz in the 1940s. The fact that she will show no interest in taking the brooch from Adam proves to be no deterrent, as this gesture will hold the key to his much-needed redemption.

Along the way, Hope introduces us to a passing cast of supporting characters: Ulya, a citizen of the recently dismantled Soviet Union looking to escape to America; Ofir, the aspiring musician turned Israeli soldier who is wounded in a terrorist attack on a bus; Claudette, the Catholic from Canada who has found herself mixed up in life on the kibbutz; and Ziva, the wise old woman who holds the secret to Adam’s desperate, intercontinental endeavour.

Safekeeping’s biggest strength is its meticulous research and keen eye toward describing life on a kibbutz. Hope has obviously immersed herself in the finer details of this culture, and she writes about them with confidence and passion. She has also done a superb job of rendering the zeitgeist of 1994: the internet and cellular telephones are barely a presence; people listen to Walkmans (though perhaps “Discman” would have been better); and the image of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn is a recurrent one. As well, the character of Adam, despite his lack of a plausible motivation, is deeply compelling. His love for his grandfather and his need to salvage some hope for his life is palpable in every scene he’s in.

The other characters, unfortunately, are not nearly as well drawn. I felt throughout the book a certain distance from Claudette and Ofir and the others, as if their emotional worlds were not nearly as accessible. This was a strange feeling, considering there were times when Safekeeping felt desperately overwritten, as if too much character detail was included that didn’t quite cohere to the grander structure of the novel. Each member of the cast of supporting characters felt, to a certain degree, in a state of desperation (and what is the state of Israel, really, except a state in a constant state of desperation), but it just felt like Adam’s situation was privileged over the others.

Still, there’s much to love about this well-crafted novel. Safekeeping skirts right up to the border of sentimentality without crossing over it. And the highly symbolic motifs – the brooch, the kibbutz, the Holocaust, Israel itself – never feel too obvious, and work really well together. For those interested in Jewish, and especially kibbutz, culture, this book will prove, for the most part, a satisfying read.

No comments:

Post a Comment