An English novelist who has won international awards maps the life of a “perpetual foreigner” in the world
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. By Tamar Yellin. Toby Press, 156 pp., $22.95.
By Janice Harayda
You can tell a lot about God’s sense of humor by the people he gives money to, an old joke says. Literary awards suggest that heaven has a lot of whoopee cushions. So what are we to make of the news that the Tamar Yellin won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, worth $100,000, for her first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher?
Perhaps that God has put away one of the whoppee cushions. I haven’t read Yellin’s first novel, but Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is a wonderful book. This collection of ten linked short stories deals with characters who are displaced – geographically, psychologically, linguistically – in unnamed but slightly exotic lands. You can read it as a study in modern alienation from the self, a portrait of a world full of perpetual travelers without a compass, who may come from any faith.
But Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes also works as an allegory for the Jewish diaspora in the 21st century, a meditation on a people often unable to find the Messiah within as they wait for the Messiah from without. In the story “Asher” an old man lives alone in an urban apartment building of faded splendor, where he obsessively checks his mail, reads the papers, and listens to the radio, waiting for a report that never comes. Once in a while, he says, “it would be nice to hear some good news”: “We interrupt this bulletin to announce the coming of the Messiah.” That the old man lives on a street named for Simon Peter, the first pope, suggests that Yellin intends specifically to show the plight of Jews adrift in a Christian world.
Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes unfolds as a series of chronological episodes in the life of a wandering narrator, a “perpetual foreigner” whose name and sex are never given – a character we meet as a 9-year-old in thrall to a ruthless nomadic uncle and last see as an old traveler facing death alone in a distant land. Each story works as part of the whole and as a stand-alone parable about the cost of rootlessness, including a misplaced trust in people or talismanic objects used like New-Age crystals. The magical realist story “Issachar” may nod to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah with its tale of a student named Genie who may be invisible, an apparition, or a hallucination.
Yellin writes about complex ideas in an appealingly direct and engaging prose style. There is nothing pretentious or stuffy about her stories, which would make for fine reading aloud. The tales have their roots in the ancient idea of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel but require no familiarity with it to be enjoyable. The stories often have a mystery at their heart, which adds to the suspense, and a twist or half-turn at the end. Yellin was born and lives in the north of England, and it is heartening that a writer of her skill has won major international honors. It is also startling that she has never made the shortlist for Man Booker Prize, given some of the trifles that have appeared on it. That neglect may support, however obliquely, some of the ideas about the place of Jews in the world that Yellin develops in this book.
Best line: “I thought that at last I was beginning to be cured of restlessness, though perhaps I was merely beginning to be cured of youth.”
Worst line: “There are birds, the albatross for example, that spend their entire lives in the air.” This is a good metaphor for the narrator and other characters in this book who, figuratively speaking, spend their lives in the air. But the line isn’t strictly true – albatrosses nest on land and rest on ocean waves – and for that reason slightly confusing, particularly given that it appears on the first page. You aren’t sure whether the author is taking creative license or trying to establish the narrator as unreliable.
Reading group guide: Available on the Toby Press site.
Published: September 2008
Read an excerpt from Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.
Furthermore: A review in the Sept. 1, 2008, issue of Library Journal said that this book is “recommended for all libraries.
About the cover: Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes will appear soon in the “Rating the Book Covers” series on this site. In the meantime, a question: Does this “A” book have an “A” cover?
The review of Clara’s War that was scheduled to appear this week will be posted in early June.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.