Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, in the vein of Nicole Krauss’s bestselling The History of Love, is an imaginative story that delves into the heart of Jewish mysticism, faith, and family.
“This is not an ordinary tree I am making.
“This,” he said, “this is the Tree of Knowledge.”
In the half-Hasidic, half-hipster Montreal neighborhood of Mile End, eleven-year-old Lev Meyer is discovering that there may be a place for Judaism in his life. As he learns about science in his day school, Lev begins his own extracurricular study of the Bible’s Tree of Knowledge with neighbor Mr. Katz, who is building his own Tree out of trash. Meanwhile his sister Samara is secretly studying for her Bat Mitzvah with next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor, Mr. Glassman. All the while his father, David, a professor of Jewish mysticism, is a non-believer.
When, years later, David has a heart attack, he begins to believe God is speaking to him. While having an affair with one of his students, he delves into the complexities of Kabbalah. Months later Samara, too, grows obsessed with the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life—hiding her interest from those who love her most–and is overcome with reaching the Tree’s highest heights. The neighbors of Mile End have been there all along, but only one of them can catch her when she falls.
I am unfamiliar with the Jewish mysticism that is at the heart of this book. This didn't stop me enjoying the story and indeed the author helped me understand enough to allow my enjoyment, but I do wonder if I missed out. Note to self: do some background research.
At the heart of the story is the concept of the tree of life or tree of knowledge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_life_(Kabbalah) and the way the desire to climb the tree takes over the lives and minds of several key characters. Mr Katz's eccentric behaviour causes local amusement and frustration, but is shown to be a consequence of his obsession with climbing the tree and should have been a warning to others. Of course it is a warning that goes unheeded and two key characters also lose touch with reality. Early in the book one of the characters says:
What is the moral of this story?
Don't see signs in everything. It makes it impossible to live.
He is quite right. But we cannot ignore signs altogether, they are how human beings communicate.
The book's subject matter is more than just mysticism and esoteric Jewishness. It is also about two children who have lost their mother and have a father who does not communicate well with them. Indeed communication or its absence is equally important as a theme. Even non-communication can be a sign - as is the case of a phone ringing but no one speaking when it is answered. Samara literally puts up a sign in her window, which simply says "Please call" and which their non-Jewish neighbour, Alex, responds to. Alex in turn is obsessed with getting a message from space, and with coding and decoding messages. Alex may be a scientist by inclination, but isn't he also trying to find meaning and order in the universe in much the same way the kabbalists are?
The structure of the book with four parts, each narrated from the point of view of a different character (Lev, David, Samara and Alex), allows us to see just how often they misinterpret each other. Lev misreads his father. Alex misreads Samara. But in the end the book makes the case for communication, no matter how faulty. You cannot climb the tree of life on your own.
I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.