The Singing Fire
In 1875, Nehama arrives at St. Katharine’s Dock, having fled the expectations of her family in Poland. Planning to create a new life for herself and then send for her family to join her, she isn’t prepared for the reality of London’s East End, where only a block can separate the lively street markets from the dens of iniquity. Her dreams of independence falter when she is tricked into becoming a prostitute by a man called the Squire, who poses as a member of the Newcomers’ Assistance Committee. Brutalized and trapped, Nehama soon begins to lose hope, but when she becomes pregnant she realizes she must get away to save her child. With only the whispers of her late grandmother to guide her, she escapes and is taken in by a kind couple, who help her to re-create herself in the respectable immigrant community of the East End. There, despite a miscarriage, she begins to find a niche for herself as a seamstress and marries a tailor named Nathan. Sadly, however, she is unable to escape the pain of losing her baby and is haunted by the conviction that her sordid life in Dorset Street is to blame for her childlessness.
Emilia arrives in London in 1886, having fled from a life in Minsk that would have been considered privileged if it weren’t for her domineering and unpredictable father. Her dreams of living in an Italian villa with the mother she left behind have not prepared her for the rough life that faces Jewish immigrants in London. She is also pregnant, and it’s only Nehama’s intervention that saves her from the clutches of the Squire. But the struggles of life in the working-class Jewish neighborhood are not what she imagined for herself, and, leaving her baby with Nehama, she escapes to the wealthier streets of the city’s West End. There, she re-creates herself as a gentile and marries into a wealthy family, but cannot escape the memory of everything she has left behind.
Years pass as Nehama and Emilia follow their separate paths, each trying to ensure herself a successful future — Nehama dreams of opening a store of her own, Emilia plans to have another child. Yet each realizes that it is impossible to do so without coming to terms with the past. This is asking a lot of two women who have seen such sorrow of their own, and who also remember that of their mothers and grandmothers. But as they discover, the tests of the past, when seen from the present, are also proof of strength and faith. It is this reserve that both women draw on to make peace with their new lives, and in doing so, they arrive in places that hold some common ground.
With vivid prose and rich detail, Lilian Nattel weaves the lives of these two women not only together but into the tapestry of nineteenth-century London. Taking us into the streets and alleys of the East End, Nattel honours the spirit of the Jewish immigrant community and most of all the women who lived at its heart.
READ AN EXCERPT
They met in a place of smoky bricks and smoky fogs and a million pigeons nesting by a million chimneys. Sea winds blew the fog from the docks to the depot, from the railroad tracks to the high road, from there to the lane, working into all the hidden alleys as narrow as...
1. How is this novel a story about what it means to be a mother? Think not only about Nehama and Emilia, but their own mothers, and Gittel’s dreams of what her real mother would be like. And what is the role of the ghostly grandmothers who follow Nehama and Emilia?
2. From the first lines of this book, we...
—The Globe and Mail
“Think Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Dickens and Gabriel García Márquez and you will have some idea of the scope of literary influences behind Lilian Nattel’s new novel.”
—Quill & Quire
"Marvelous...vibrant....Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that’s never simply for laughs ... and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge. Beautifully-written, strongly imagined and deeply felt."
“The Singing Fire is sure to be a big hit. Nattel has so many strengths as a writer that it’s tempting just to list them: a historian’s eye for detail and language, a storyteller’s mastery of rhythm and suspense, a modern woman’s sympathetic understanding for those who’ve preceded her.”
“…At times heartbreaking without being tragic, and often heart filling without being sentimental. Nattel’s novel is a celebration of the lives of women and the generations of mothers who support each other through family and friendship. The Singing Fire ushers in the new year with a resounding message of love and hope.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“Lilian Nattel writes vivid prose. Her description of the cold, mucky streets of London, dimly lit by gaslight, where people throw pots of slop and other unmentionable refuse on to the rooftops and into the streets, is captivating in its realism.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“Once again, Nattel’s descriptive powers shine, and her evocation of place is Dickensian.”
“…here’s betting that most readers will end up loving headstrong, passionate Nehama almost as a sister, and recognizing this magical book as one of the best of the new year.”
—The Gazette (Montreal)
Praise for The River Midnight:
“Nattel has the gift not only of telling the truth about women’s lives but the rarer gift of creating a world the reader can live inside. . . . Radiant and magical.”
“Richly imagined, sensuous in its details, spiced with energetic dialogue, The River Midnight offers pleasures on every page.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez’s Macondo, Nattel’s imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance [and] the brilliantly patterned minutiae of daily life.”