Written by Lilian Nattel
Format: Trade Paperback, 336 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-676-97601-4 (0-676-97601-8)
Pub Date: November 30, 2004
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From the acclaimed author of The River Midnight comes the story two emigrant women who change each other’s lives and, despite following separate paths, are united in their love of a child.
In 1875, Nehama arrives at St. Katharine’s Dock, having fled the expectations of her family in Poland. Planning to create a new life for herself and then send for her family to join her, she isn’t prepared for the reality of London’s East End, where only a block can separate the lively street markets from the dens of iniquity. Her dreams of independence falter when she is tricked into becoming a prostitute by a man called the Squire, who poses as a member of the Newcomers’ Assistance Committee. Brutalized and trapped, Nehama soon begins to lose hope, but when she becomes pregnant she realizes she must get away to save her child. With only the whispers of her late grandmother to guide her, she escapes and is taken in by a kind couple, who help her to re-create herself in the respectable immigrant community of the East End. There, despite a miscarriage, she begins to find a niche for herself as a seamstress and marries a tailor named Nathan. Sadly, however, she is unable to escape the pain of losing her baby and is haunted by the conviction that her sordid life in Dorset Street is to blame for her childlessness.
Emilia arrives in London in 1886, having fled from a life in Minsk that would have been considered privileged if it weren’t for her domineering and unpredictable father. Her dreams of living in an Italian villa with the mother she left behind have not prepared her for the rough life that faces Jewish immigrants in London. She is also pregnant, and it’s only Nehama’s intervention that saves her from the clutches of the Squire. But the struggles of life in the working-class Jewish neighborhood are not what she imagined for herself, and, leaving her baby with Nehama, she escapes to the wealthier streets of the city’s West End. There, she re-creates herself as a gentile and marries into a wealthy family, but cannot escape the memory of everything she has left behind.
Years pass as Nehama and Emilia follow their separate paths, each trying to ensure herself a successful future — Nehama dreams of opening a store of her own, Emilia plans to have another child. Yet each realizes that it is impossible to do so without coming to terms with the past. This is asking a lot of two women who have seen such sorrow of their own, and who also remember that of their mothers and grandmothers. But as they discover, the tests of the past, when seen from the present, are also proof of strength and faith. It is this reserve that both women draw on to make peace with their new lives, and in doing so, they arrive in places that hold some common ground.
With vivid prose and rich detail, Lilian Nattel weaves the lives of these two women not only together but into the tapestry of nineteenth-century London. Taking us into the streets and alleys of the East End, Nattel honours the spirit of the Jewish immigrant community and most of all the women who lived at its heart.
“By turns earthy and lyrical, The Singing Fire authoritatively conjures up the fog- and smoke-filled breath of London, and at the same time it’s steeped in an atmosphere of mystery, reaching for soaring, transcendental truths. Nattel’s greatest strength. . .is as an old-fashioned storyteller. . . I must confess, I wept unabashedly more than once as I raced through this fine novel.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Think Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Dickens and Gabriel García Márquez and you will have some idea of the scope of literary influences behind Lilian Nattel’s new novel.”
—Quill & Quire
"Marvelous...vibrant....Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that’s never simply for laughs ... and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge. Beautifully-written, strongly imagined and deeply felt."
“The Singing Fire is sure to be a big hit. Nattel has so many strengths as a writer that it’s tempting just to list them: a historian’s eye for detail and language, a storyteller’s mastery of rhythm and suspense, a modern woman’s sympathetic understanding for those who’ve preceded her.”
“…At times heartbreaking without being tragic, and often heart filling without being sentimental. Nattel’s novel is a celebration of the lives of women and the generations of mothers who support each other through family and friendship. The Singing Fire ushers in the new year with a resounding message of love and hope.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“Lilian Nattel writes vivid prose. Her description of the cold, mucky streets of London, dimly lit by gaslight, where people throw pots of slop and other unmentionable refuse on to the rooftops and into the streets, is captivating in its realism.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“Once again, Nattel’s descriptive powers shine, and her evocation of place is Dickensian.”
“…here’s betting that most readers will end up loving headstrong, passionate Nehama almost as a sister, and recognizing this magical book as one of the best of the new year.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
Praise for The River Midnight:
“Nattel has the gift not only of telling the truth about women’s lives but the rarer gift of creating a world the reader can live inside. . . . Radiant and magical.”
“Richly imagined, sensuous in its details, spiced with energetic dialogue, The River Midnight offers pleasures on every page.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez’s Macondo, Nattel’s imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance [and] the brilliantly patterned minutiae of daily life.”
About this Author
Growing up in Montreal, Lilian Nattel soaked up the stories and customs of her Jewish culture and learned Yiddish from her parents: “My parents spoke Yiddish at home when they didn't want us kids to understand, so of course I learned it well.” The language has been useful while doing research for her novels, as she has been able to read prayers, poems and memoirs in the original. And for Nattel, adherence to historical fact is crucial to bringing her characters to life. As she explained in one interview, “I can’t bring myself to be inaccurate. If I’m writing about someone wearing a dress in 1895, I want to know the fashion in 1895, what colours were popular in 1895, I want to know the street names, what kind of people lived on that street, I want to know whether they have restaurants yet, how people cooked.”
For Nattel, writing has always been an integral part of who she is and being a full-time author has always been her goal, but it took years for her to write and publish her first book. It was while working as an accountant that she realized she would have to take a new approach and make some sacrifices in order for her dream to come true. Casting aside the preconceptions we all have about writers being driven only by their art, at the expense of everything else in life, Nattel came up with a solid plan that allowed her to explore taking on writing as a profession. “What I did was actually write up a contract with myself,” she has explained in one interview. “It was a five-year contract in which I contracted to give myself five years to see what I could do with writing because it meant a lot of financial sacrifices to have a part-time accounting practice.” In that five years she sold some stories to literary journals and began her first novel, so she signed herself up for another five years. And it was then that The River Midnight caught the attention of her agent, Helen Heller, and then an editor at Scribners in New York. The book was also signed by Knopf Canada and featured in their New Face of Fiction program.
The River Midnight was published in 1999 to international acclaim. Set in 1894, in the fictional village of Blaszka, Poland, the novel tells the magical and multi-layered story of four women who are brought closer together by unexpected love, an imprisoned daughter, and two orphan children sent home from America. One reviewer compared Nattel’s Blaszka, so full of “mythic significance,” to Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, and rights have been sold in seven countries so far. After its publication, Nattel was finally able to devote herself to writing full-time, though she still approaches her work with the discipline she needed early on: “Writing is a combination of effort and effortless, but there’s always a lot more effort. If you just wait for inspiration to strike, it’s never going to happen. You really have to put in the hours.”
After the success of The River Midnight, Nattel was determined to make sure that her second novel lived up to the expectations of her readers. So much so that she even tore up the third draft of what was to become The Singing Fire. Originally, the book was about a Victorian spinster, but the story just wasn’t coming together — all except for about thirty pages, which introduced a girl named Gittel. “I was attempting to write an easy novel,” Nattel has said, “and this other story was trying to push up from underneath.” Beginning again, Nattel created Emilia, and then Nehama, who would become the strongest voice in the finished book. As the story was gestating in Nattel’s mind, it was also strongly influenced by a major change in her own life: the adoption of two little girls. Her love for her new daughters inspired Nattel to explore what it meant to be a mother, and an adoptive mother, which became a major theme in The Singing Fire.
But for Nattel, having her fiction influenced by her own experiences is nothing new. In fact, it is her own life history that has always driven her to explore, and then to write. “I'm fascinated by history, seeing our present being shaped in the past. This has led me to explore the issues that are important to me, whether it is women’s friendship, motherhood, reconciliation or adoption in the historical times and places that have so much influenced who I am now.” Today, Nattel is hard at work on a third novel, set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which is narrated by an elderly Jewish woman recalling her youth.
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