Once (in New York City) upon a time (about now), there were two sisters named Marjorie and Holly. Their unexceptional middle-class childhoods were shadowed only by their grandfather’s eerie, haunting bedtime stories—about the White Rebbe, about ghostly young boys haunting Old World villages, about the Sabbath Light and the Angel of Losses.
Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel The Angel of Losses is like that: A delicate mix of mysticism and modernity, folktale and history. It’s a book made of opposites. Half the narrative is a present-day family drama about a woman renegotiating her relationships with her sister and her grandfather—light, mundane, modern. But the other half is a dark, mystical examination of sacrifice, and the cost of love. It’s this grimmer, eerier side that makes the book so worth reading.
As a whole, it’s also a useful participant in the cultural widening of fantasy as a genre. For decades mainstream fantasy has been recycling and reimagining the magics of Western Europe; we’re positively drowning in dragons and fairies, hip-deep in suspiciously Tolkien-ish elves. There’s nothing inherently dissatisfying about these creatures, but there are undeniable power dynamics at work in terms of whose magic has made it onto the page. And there are so many other wish-granting fish in the sea, other sets of fairy tales and gods and monsters, that it feels nearly criminal to limit ourselves.
In The Angel of Losses, Feldman mines Jewish folklore and mysticism to build her own fantastic vocabulary. It’s not the first fantasy book to do so—despite some controversial claims that there are no such things as “Jewish Narnias,” and that there’s no other literary field to which “Jews have contributed so little.” Such claims ignore creators from Michael Chabon to Stan Lee, and depend on a perilously narrow definition of Jewish identities and fantasy genres. Most recently, Helene Wecker’s graceful debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and made use of a combination of Jewish and Middle Eastern mythologies jumbled together in the chaotic melting pot of late-nineteenth century New York. Still—the hosts of angels and holy books and scholarly traditions that exist in The Angel of Losses may be unfamiliar to unversed readers.
They certainly were to me. I was raised in rural Kentucky by parents whose spiritual philosophies closely matched Mufasa’s in The Lion King—reading this book sometimes felt like traveling in a foreign country with Wikipedia as my guidebook. If you have a similarly narrow background, you might also find yourself lost in unfamiliar names and rituals, down dim alleys where none of the street signs sound familiar.
But this slight dislocation is built into the experience of unfamiliar magical terrains—like traveling in a foreign country, it “sometimes gives one a lovely universe-warping shift of perspective.” If it requires a little additional work, a little more vigilance, readers shouldn’t flinch—particularly not fantasy readers, who regularly involve themselves in the internecine political landscapes of unknown places, who have dabbled in Elvish or Dothraki, who ought to be more open than anyone to unfamiliar magics and mythologies.
In any case, Feldman provides as much readerly hand-holding as she can. When we meet Marjorie, our narrator, she’s a graduate student pursuing her grandfather’s stories in the archives, writing her thesis on the Wandering Jew, and offering lots of helpful signposting for the uninitiated reader. She’s also trying to understand her sister Holly, who has married into Orthodox Judaism and changed her name to Chava.
Much of the emotional meat of the book centers on the gulf between the sisters, which only the miraculous or tragic can bridge: Holly’s infant son develops deadly seizures; Marjorie discovers their grandfather’s secret, haunted past as an immigrant fleeing the ghettos of 1930s Europe, along with a mystical power that might save Holly’s son.
Her grandfather’s story is told in a series of four secret notebooks, interspersed perfectly with the main narrative, and those stories-within-the-story stole my heart more thoroughly than Marjorie and her sister ever did. Perhaps just because the dull present can never quite measure up to the legendary past, Marjorie’s narrative sometimes felt dreadfully mundane. Her life is bogged down in thesis research and petty family tensions. At some point she meets an attractive archivist, conveniently unbothered by her obsessive research and erratic behaviors, and their romance proceeds with disappointing predictability. And for all her cleverness, Marjorie herself often lumbers in the wake of the reader’s deductions, so that her realization that her grandfather was Jewish was less of a “gasp” and more of a sarcastic “no, really?”
There’s no such dullness or eye-rolling in her grandfather’s stories. They’re rich, strange, fairy-tale histories, and Feldman was apparently born to write rich, strange, fairy-tale histories. Her prose throughout the novel is efficient, confident, littered with snatches of lyricism like stray poetry, but the White Rebbe stories have their own distinctive lilt. The city of Venice is described as “imbued with the sound of the tides, as if the city were at the center of a giant’s heart” (p. 33). It’s a “world of stone and gold and ink in the palm of the sea” (p. 34). How lovely, how magical.
But the most powerful moments come when the fairy-tale prose mixes with the painfully real. In The White Rebbe and the Ghetto, the narration is scattered between the omniscient third-person of a storyteller and the vivid pain of first-person experience.
A young boy hears a train in the distance, a “death train,” and knows “this one was coming for him alone,” and “when it did, it would be filled with all of the people he loved, and all of the things they knew—the dialects they joked in, the melodies they hummed, the smells of their cooking, the recipes unwritten, the ingredients once harvested from fields now poisoned by blood—”
But here the protective veneer of third-person is sheared away, replaced by the painful immediacy of first-person narration in the middle of a single paragraph. It’s a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, which transforms a dark fairytale into a personal history:
—and then all of these things would beckon me, and no matter how I try to forget, no matter the words I refuse to say, the memories I let wither, the blessings I leave unsaid, in the end there will be the train, there will be my death, the very same death, the only death, and I will fall on my knees before it, and my sins will rise up like a school of golden fish, and they will fight one another in my gullet, and I will clutch my throat (p. 200).
How beautiful. How terrible.
This passage, too, hints at the darkest heart of the book, which is not about magic and angels at all, but about the inevitability of loss. In Feldman’s world, love itself can become a terrible burden, something that inspires suffering and sacrifice—and there’s no magic trick at the end that lets our protagonist off the hook. Miracles have a price.
- Michael Weingrad, “Why there is no Jewish Narnia,” Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2010. To support this claim, it is of course necessary to dismiss many prominent Jewish writers who have explored the fantastic, “from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick,” on the grounds that they weren’t really writing fantasy. Weingrad apparently suffers from the common belief that the phrase “literary fantasy” is inherently oxymoronic.[return]
- Charlie Jane Anders, “The Idea that Jews Don’t Write Fantasy is a Fantasy,” i09.com, 2010; Abigail Nussbaum, “Fantasy and the Jewish Question,” Asking the Wrong Questions, 2010.[return]
- Nisi Shawl, “Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture,” Strange Horizons, 2014.[return]
Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.