The first, ambitious novel by Nomi Eve reads smoothly and pleasurably. It is not easy to retell the story, because The Family Orchard is not written like a novel, but is more like a memoir, an autobiography, and a family history. The writer employs a complex, multilevel writing technique to achieve the necessary atmosphere: old pictures and lithographs, and also family trees starting in 1837 and gradually growing new “branches,” developing into a rich, magnificent family orchard of the present time. Eve employs her father’s documents relating to the events and personages in their family history, as well as illustrations, drawings, and texts about the art of grafting and cultivating fruit trees. Her use of these materials shows her copious research, and also successfully creates the patina of time enveloping her text. The plot of this novel-history is a patchwork of whimsically but cleverly chosen episodes in the lives of Nomi Eve’s believable and often unforgettable characters. Each “piece” of that mosaic, that exciting riddle called life, starts with a short, factual piece of information written by the narrator’s father and is followed, in fact paralleled, by Eve’s imaginative, poetic, witty, and humorous “fictionalization” of her father’s information.
It is not an easy task to write about people who lived far away and long ago, and about whom there are only bits and pieces of random, sporadic, basic information. Lacking many important facts and a whole realm of the characters’ intimate thoughts and feelings, how does one bring them to life? Eve has turned that deficiency into a challenge, creating marvelously exciting, sometimes eccentric, but always exuberantly vibrant, lifelike human beings. She admits that there is much she does not know, but the lack of knowledge can be liberating for the inventive, inquisitive, playful, almost childlike spirit of an artist.
The family history starts in medias res with the introduction of Esther, the founder of the family, newly married to Yochanan Schine. The bride is from the British Empire, the groom from East Prussia, and the marriage is, typically and traditionally, arranged through a matchmaker. The couple emigrate to Palestine and get married in Jerusalem in 1837. Three months later, Esther wanders through the city’s twisting and turning streets and gets lost. Described only as a “peripherally pious woman” (perhaps to prepare the reader for the unexpected), nineteen-year-old Esther smells fresh bread and enters a tiny bakery. The baker, she notices, is young and beautiful “in a coltish, boyish way.” He offers her some mint tea and a fresh roll, and right then starts a nine-year love affair based on “an ancient elemental passion that must have existed, like sand, earth, and sky, long before either of them had been born.” One’s sense of propriety may find it all a bit startling, but Eve does not enter into any psychological or other kind of justification for her character’s behavior. Great passions are gifts (or curses) of nature, just like magnetism, electricity, tornadoes, and floods, and they do not change by being explained on the human plane. Esther’s young husband finds out about the affair, but it does not make him angry with his wife. Strangely, he yearns for her even more throughout their whole marriage and even after she dies in childbirth. Even while married to another woman, Ruchama, he continues to enjoy passionate erotic dreams of Esther late into his old age. He finds it a bit strange, but learns “not to fear the strangeness at all.”
Neither Eve nor her characters are afraid of “strangeness.” In fact, they are fascinated by it, just as they are by life itself. Esther and Yochanan’s son Eliezer and Ruchama’s daughter Golda start sleeping together during the night (without their parents’ knowledge). They develop such a strong passion for each other, beyond the physical, that the parents have to agree to the marriage of a stepbrother and stepsister. The daughter born to Yochanan and Ruchama, named Avra, further enriches this already unusual family. From an early age she is a very imaginative kleptomaniac, stealing everything from a precious purple geode to an heirloom silver spoon, or a pair of men’s shoes from a mosque. At ten, she snatches seven mosaic stones from a statue of a second century b.c.e. Roman goddess. Credit must be given to Avra: Most of the time she returns the stolen object—though not to the original place, but to where she feels it belongs better. The author duly explains Avra’s intentions as a playful wish to confuse, since she is not a common criminal, only a person with a misguided sense of self-expression.
Eve has a sense of humor; she writes with the same bewitching charm and poise that she...
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