Reviewed By Mary Medlin
- Fig Tree Books (2015)
- 371 pages
Safekeeping, Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel, spans hundreds of years and is equally vast in topic, taking as its subjects (among many others) the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, 9/11 and New York City in its aftermath, and a mysterious dispute involving orphans and Catholic nuns. The scope of the novel is ambitious, but Hope has structured it wisely, and the storylines, nearly all taking place on a kibbutz in Israel, flow well into and alongside one another. The narratives both have a distinct sense of the past’s impingement, while also informing and affecting one another in the present. Even with so many strands for a reader to follow, immersion in these disparate worlds is complete. Knowledge of kibbutzim, the Holy Roman Empire, or post–World War II Israeli history isn’t required to read this gorgeously written, evocative novel: we are grounded in the bustle of life on an Israeli kibbutz, with its simultaneously cantankerous and compassionate residents, and also buoyed above the years as they pass, experiencing the mid-Fourteenth century and the end of the Twentieth century from equal distances.
The primary storyline begins in 1994, as Adam, a luckless but not yet hopeless addict, arrives in Israel from New York City, unwashed, in withdrawal, and possessing a single item—a medieval brooch bejeweled with pomegranates and vines, made centuries before by a Jewish craftsman for his wife. Adam is on a singular mission: to return the brooch, a possession of his late grandfather Franz, to Dagmar, the only woman Franz ever loved. Adam’s only lead is the kibbutz Sadot Hadar, to which Franz fled after his liberation from Buchenwald, and where he met and fell in love with Dagmar before going to America. Adam sees this mission as his last chance to do something meaningful and good with his otherwise wasted life. He is stymied again and again in attempting to locate Dagmar (whose name he doesn’t even know upon arriving), while he simultaneously fights to stay sober.
The novel’s most interesting focus, and what Hope writes best, is suffering. Adam’s suffering along with the suffering of the other residents of Sadot Hadar: Ulya, a beautiful young Belarusian woman dreaming of Manhattan and a man who will take her there; Ofir, a remarkably gifted pianist who struggles with teenage hormones and, later, with a life-changing injury; Claudette, a sheltered French woman and devout Catholic, whose obsessive-compulsive disease is a cruel master, but whose friendships forged on the kibbutz show her, at last, how to be free.
Each character lives in a private world wallpapered by their own sorrow and how they have endured it. Though the omniscient narrator keenly depicts their individual grief and misery, Hope makes no value judgments about suffering—why these people suffer, or whether or not they deserve to—and neither does she rank one kind of suffering against another, which, in contrast, is something Adam does again and again. He habitually compares his life to his grandfather’s, quantifying the hardships they have each endured. He’s plagued by guilt at how much worse Franz’s lot was, and by self-disgust at how he has squandered his relatively easy life. The sections of the book told from Adam’s perspective are anchored by these comparisons, as he is repeatedly thwarted in pursuit of his mission:
The only way to make sure the brooch ended up in the right hands was to leave it with the one person his grandfather had ever wanted to have it, the one person he had ever found worthy. It wouldn’t undo the past, Adam understood that, but it was both the least and the most he could do. There was only Dagmar. He had to find her.
Adam reconciles any bad luck or disappointments by telling himself that he deserves it for how he has thus far lived his life. Even incidents unrelated to his mission, such as being rejected by a woman, he justifies by berating himself for being distracted from his goal. Other kibbutz residents share this self-loathing trait, suffering setbacks on their own paths and punishing themselves accordingly.
Throughout Safekeeping, Hope stands aside and lets her characters find ways into or out of misfortune, sometimes to our delight and relief, sometimes to our deep discontent. Each outcome is rendered sharply, in striking language and from a steady, removed perspective—while Hope’s language suggests an emotional connection to her characters, she does not alter their fates. The most uplifting transformation is that of Claudette, who not only dispels the cloudy mystery of her childhood, but also discovers that the strength of her demons is the same strength that liberates her:
Four and a half months ago, when she made her way to the kibbutz gate she saw nothing . . . Now she noticed the horses swishing their majestic tails, heard the shots of children in a nearby schoolyard, smelled the resinous eucalyptuses lining the side of the road . . . she saw God’s plan more clearly. Impermanence was painful, almost unbearable, but that was how He made everything precious.
Hope has given us a novel in which things of value—dreams, loves, lives, brooches—traverse the ridgepole between triumph and failure, gain and loss, possibility and inevitability. Her characters are the same; they possess their own damnation, and their own redemption, often—beautifully, agonizingly—at the same time.
Mary Medlin’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Blackbird, the Drum, and Confrontation and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.