Reading this book was like being taken gently by the hand and walking into the heart of music. Literally. It was beautiful. A song painted in bright colours and then filled with a shower of stars and then softly faded into delicate hues of autumn and spring and heart ache and wonder. I am positively in awe of Davidow’s writing, of the tenderness of her narrative voices and of the layered strands that she has woven together to create this masterpiece. It is difficult not to gush.
This book made me fall in love with my own grandparents, long to hear their voices and particularly to feel the shudder of my grandfather’s own violin. It made me wonder at my own family’s journey across continents to arrive at this grand Antipodes and I ached for all that was lost in that litany of moves.
I don’t want to reveal too much because, as I tell my students, there’s no point trying to retell a story that belongs to someone else. You will never tell is as well as the person who owns the story. So, all I’m going to do is give you the gift of Davidow’s opening few paragraphs. The rest I will leave you to savour when you find this book and sink into it and drown in the story and its people.
The spring of 1913, and a young man from a remote village in Lithuania steals a ride on a train headed for the city. Everything around him as turned the colour of ash, as the cold seeps across the land, pressing any signs of life deep into the ground.
Perhaps it is written in his blood: a special code which will emerge later in someone else, generations into the future, in nightmares and fears; in someone’s inability to breathe. In Vilnius, the frowning buildings as he arrives stop him from breathing.
He has a sense of impending tragedy. Maybe his lack of breath has to do with the act of leaving. And yet who would ache to leave this behind – this wasteland of grief and broken souls? Pogroms and nights of bloodshed and terror will live in him no matter how far he travels. Loss has encoded itself in the flow of his blood, in the beating of his heart – a ghost that will travel through time, through his DNA.
The future is already written, but he cannot read it. He can only sense its weight, its texture, and he has to believe that anything is better than this. As his life flashes by outside a fast-moving train, his past dissolves. The village and the 1800s have disappeared forever. This hours in the wig factory are gone. He hopes he will no longer feel he must apologise for the act of living.
Go. Find this book. Read it. Now. And then book yourself in to hear Shelley Davidow speak at the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival.