by Amy Bloom
Published by Random House
236 pages, 2007
Lost in the Forest
Reviewed by David Abrams
Tucked into the first ten pages of Away, Amy Bloom’s new novel there is a scene of such horrific intensity, reading it you feel as if your eyes have been splashed with lye. For the rest of this epic, sprawling novel, those few gore-soaked pages will dominate your consciousness.
And that’s just the way it should be, since that scene is the most pivotal one in young Lillian Leyb’s life. Her entire family has just been wiped out during the Russian pogrom, butchered right before her eyes as she feigned death.
“Lillian was twenty-two; she was an orphan, a widow, and the mother of a dead child, for which there’s not even a special word, it’s such a terrible thing.”
A terrible thing, yes, but Lillian is a survivor with an iron will. She picks herself up off the blood-slick floor and eventually makes her way to Ellis Island where she will try to make a new start in America.
Away spans the years 1924 to 1926 and follows Lillian as she finds work as a seamstress in New York’s Yiddish theater district before moving across the United States to Seattle and eventually up to Alaska. Like many a bold adventurer in literature, Lillian is on a quest and she will experience any number of setbacks, downfalls, imprisonments, beatings, starvations and other near-death episodes before she reaches her journey’s end.
The grail at the end of Lillian’s search is her three-year-old daughter, Sophie, believed to have died shortly after the rest of her family was killed. Lillian’s cousin, however, has come to America with the news that Sophie is alive and was rescued by another Jewish family who survived the pogrom. Upon hearing the news fall from her cousin‘s lips, Bloom writes, Lillian reels from the shock: “Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood.”
With that flame of love rekindled, Lillian sets off across America by herself on a harebrained scheme to travel to Alaska where she will walk across the Bering Strait back to her native Russia to find her daughter. With maps sewn into the lining of her overcoat and the weight of a mother‘s love on her shoulders, she is also walking across a panorama of America in the 1920s.
Bloom has created a world that is so real, so palpable that reading Away is just one gigawatt short of actual time travel. Undoubtedly, the author spent countless hours researching everything from how a mistress’ Lower East Side apartment would be decorated (red-and-pink flowered carpeting with a green damask settee, for starters) to the way light falls in an Alaskan forest (“in narrow green spears through the woods and spreads like a shining stain, a baleful white canopy, sheer and bright, in the open”). These and a million other details are seamlessly stitched into the narrative and lend the novel a rich, authoritative atmosphere.
In fact, the tapestry of Away is so well done, it’s often hard to see the tree for the forest. By tree, I mean, of course, Lillian herself. Throughout the book, the character remains an enigma, oddly held at arm’s length by an author who rarely pierces beneath the skin of someone who should be a turmoil of emotions. Instead, we get a copy of an illustration of a portrait of a woman.
That, unfortunately, is the one thing that gives Away an unmistakable limp. Lillian is haunted by the loss of her family (“Everyone has two memories. The one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.”), and her grief and devastation come through, but for the most part she remains an oyster that cannot be pried open. I admired her bravery and her fiery feminism in the Jazz Age world of men who treated women as sex objects, but ultimately Lillian gets lost in the beautifully-written world in which she lives. | September 2007
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.