Reviewed by Tania Hershman
The title of Tamar Yellin's first collection, Kafka in Bronteland, is a wonderful, four-pronged foreshadowing of the stories themselves. First, Kafka, implying a distance from our everyday reality and possibility that anything may happen. Literary fiction is what the Bronte reference prepares us for, and from the allusion to Alice comes a sense of the magical and fantastical. The fourth is the whole title taken together: incongruity. Someone is not where they are supposed to be, not where they "belong", and this will turn out to be a recurring theme in Yellin's stories. But, as in a symphony, this refrain is taken and altered, twisted and reimagined with every movement so that at no point might a reader have cause to complain " not another one about...". This is a collection of poignant, surprising, sharply-observed and beautifully written stories.
Yellin doesn't attempt to hide the reason for her fascination with identity and belonging: the About the Author page begins by stating: "Tamar Yellin was born in the North of England. Her mother was the daughter of a Polish immigrant and her father a third generation Jerusalemite". She seems to have been born into an atmosphere of displacement, yearning, to two people that one has a hard time imagining in "the North of England" .
The book's opening story, Return to Zion, sets the tone, beginning with: "My father, Odysseus, had a lust for travel but after their marriage my mother Penelope insisted that he settle down." The legendary Greek hero is here a Jew longing to return to his homeland but pathetically reduced to poring over maps in the potting shed with his son. Yellin is an expert in opening paragraphs that compel you to read on. "My parents belonged to the lost generation and when I was growing up their drawers were full of old letters, stopped watches, bits of broken history: a Hebrew prayerbook, an unblessed mezzuzah, nine views of Budapest between the wars." This, the opening to the title story, Kafka in Bronteland, is pregnant with sorrow, history, family and dissonace: watches are stopped, history is broken, the mezzuzah was never blessed.
Lest you think all is doom and gloom, this is far from the case. Yellin is also deftly humorous. Kafka in Bronteland features Derek, the builder, with whom the protagonist tries to discuss the mysterious Mr Kafka who lives in the village. "Well you never know, says Derek. And he tells me the story of how people die and come back to life. How young Philip Shackleton, who used to work at the quarry over Dimples Hill, fell into the crusher one day and disappeared. 'Never found his body. Just traces of blood in the stones. Next year he turns up in Torremolinos.'" As this example shows, her humour is bound up in something darker, so you chuckle yet wonder if you really should be laughing at all.
Family plays a role in many of the stories. In The Other Mr Perella, a man with the same surname as the main character appears, searching for any family members, but his name has a different numbers of "l"s from theirs and therefore it seems he is doomed never to find any blood relations. In Dr Stein, a mother takes her daughter for tortuous Saturday visits with the "psychiatrist, an opinionated man", who lived in a house that the daughter remembers had "a hushed lounge, like a funeral parlour". This is a story about death and memory, as is Uncle Oswald, who is the family member everyone asks the main character about, "her mother's only living relative", and from whom she, for reasons which reach back into childhood, denies information only she remembers and he longs for, about the family's roots. History, and the memory of history, is power.
The theme of location, and dislocation, is prominent in An Italian child. The ex-husband in grey England imagines his son,"high in the hills west of Florence, off the road to Viareggio, next to the chapel of San Stefano, in a villa hung with jasmine and a pergola of roses where they eat in the summer," being raised by the Italian wife he failed to hold on to. He is a translator: he was fluent in her language but he never became fluent in her. They made a child and hoped he would be what they were not, always strangers in one country or other. "He won't be English or Italian, I answered. He will be ours. We will be his homeland."
While I found almost every story affecting, The Girlfriend is the one that seered itself into my brain. An apparently simple plot (the main character's parents are distraught when her older brother starts seeing a non-Jewish girl, and he cuts himself off from them), the way it is told is what gives it such impact. The story weaves between the main character's childhood memories of her grandmother keeping her own daughter out of the house to protect her wayward grandson, to the first meeting between little sister and the hairdresser girlfriend, Trish, who offers to plait her hair. The family history, fed to us slowly, reveals the layers underneath: the grandmother's flight from pogroms in Poland at age ten, the mother's marriage to the father against the parents' wishes, the parents unfulfilled desire to emigrate, expressed by sending their children to Hebrew classes. The ending is devastating, yet it also holds within it a spark of understanding.
Told in the second person, A New Story for Nada fits neatly into my theory about there being one in every collection which hints at why or how the writer writes what they do. It opens:
I took this as an explaination for why Yellin didn't write a memoir or a piece of historical fiction. She has fashioned new stories from the old, because that is how she has processed her family histories, how they have passed through her. This is how she continues the tradition. Her way.
Read the title story from this collection on TamarYellin.com.
Publisher: The Toby Press
Publication Date: 2006
First collection?: Yes
Awards: Winner, Reform Judaism Prize 2006, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2006, finalist for the Edge Hill Prize 2007.
Author bio: Tamar Yellin was born in the north of England. Her father was a third generation Jerusalemite and her mother the daughter of a Polish immigrant. She received the Pusey and Ellerton Prize for Biblical Hebrew from Oxford University, and has worked as a teacher and lecturer in Judaism. Her first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, appeared from The Toby Press in 2005 and was awarded the Sami Rohr Prize, the Ribalow Prize and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize. Her third book, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, was published by The Toby Press in 2008.
Read an interview with Tamar Yellin
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