A German Jewish girl whose life is destroyed by the atrocities of World War II . . . her uncle, who undermines the sureties of his own life in order to fight for Israeli statehood . . . the Jews of a 15th-century Italian ghetto . . Othello, newly arrived in Venice . . . a young Ethiopian Jewish woman resettled in Israel. These are the extraordinary people who inhabit Caryl Phillips' eloquent and moving new novel, and whose stories are connected by circumstance, spirit, and blood across the centuries. From the Hardcover edition.
In all his novels, Phillips ("Crossing the River", etc.), born in St. Kitts and raised in England, has experimented with voice to convey the dislocations of slavery, colonialism and postcolonialism. His sixth novel surges as well with the themes of his earlier fiction; the experience of homelessness, the wounds and blindnesses of racism. It deals with unexpected subject matter, however: the Holocaust, allowing Phillips to boldly challenge notions of essential ethnic identity by turning from the experience of slavery to that of the German concentration camps, from pan-African nationalism to Zionism. The novel's primary voice belongs to Eva Stern, a young woman who has just been liberated by the English army from a German camp. Through a series of flashbacks and recollections, Eva remembers life with her family, and then her experience in the camp. Phillips intercuts Eva's story with two wildly discontinuous narratives: one a retelling of the story of Othello in Othello's own voice; the other an account of the 15th-century persecution of the money-lending Jews of the Italian city Portobuffole, who were accused of murdering a Christian child. Additional narratives flow in and out, including those of Gerry, the English soldier who asks Eva to marry him, and of Eva's Uncle Stephen, who left Germany to assist in the formation of the Jewish state in Israel; there are encyclopedic glosses on Othello and on the etymology of the word "ghetto" as well. Phillips makes little effort to impose coherence or to tie together loose ends, a technique that may frustrate some readers. But he brilliantly captures his various protagonists' voices, evoking their common humanity as they struggle with and against social definitions of the nature of their blood.
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April 26, 1998
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