Wow, that took a while. So much for my New Year’s resolution to read a novel a month, eh?
I started on this book in late January, after skipping through three quarters of the Mortal Engines quartet. Then I was taking a class, which left me with very little time and energy for such frivolities. But the class ended, and on Easter weekend I decided to pick it up again. I was immediately hooked, and devoured it in a three-day binge of more-or-less nonstop reading.
I met Karen X. Tulchinsky years ago; she was leading a writing workshop, one night a week for… I don’t remember how many weeks. This was before I started blogging, but I was interested in writing. And meeting guys who were also interested in writing. The workshop didn’t help in that area, but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Ms. Tulchinsky was a great teacher, very friendly and supportive.
Now that I think about it, I’ve gotten the same impression from her previous books—one short story collection and two novels, all dealing with the trials and joys of being a Jewish dyke. I’m rereading some of the stories in In Her Nature, and (to this non-Jewish non-dyke) the history, the culture, the Yiddish, they never seem forced or self-conscious. Just a simple This is who I am. This is who we are. Sure, it’s okay to laugh along.
This latest book is different, though. It’s “queer” only in the loosest sense—only a couple of characters, including the titular narrator, are gay—but it’s still there, part of the tapestry of human experience. Another difference is that it’s not set in the present day (except for the framing narration at the start of each section, most of the action takes place in the 30’s and 40’s), and thus deals much more heavily in presenting Canada as it was then, and Canadian Jews as they were then. We know all the dates and facts about the Depression, about World War II, D-Day, about antisemitism. But the magic lies in making all that history come to life, and Tulchinsky pulls it off, brilliantly mixing the personal dramas with the wide sweep of historical events.
Interesting technique to really grab the reader: Tulchinsky writes in present-tense narration. Nice choice; it felt so natural I took a hundred pages to even notice.
This being a historical novel, the details are made up but the story is true. Toronto youths wearing Swastika badges, fighting Jewish kids; the Christie Pits riot; the disastrous Battle of Dieppe; pogroms in Tsarist Russia. All these things happened. And though Sonny “The Charger” Lapinsky never actually existed, other Jewish boxers lived and fought during the Depression. Though Yacov Lapinsky never existed, the stories he told of his escape from Russia are deeply rooted in reality—a lot more than I realised then, probably. Because, as I said, I’ve been rereading In Her Nature and one of the short stories there (“Canadian Shmadian”) contains some parts of those tales; surely they come courtesy of Tulchinsky’s older relatives.
Most of the novel’s events are related in chronological order, starting on the day after the Christie Pits riot in August 1933. Throughout the book we’re told all the facts, how that day affected the Lapinsky family: Sonny’s anger, Izzy’s brain damage. But in the last chapters take us back to the riot, and even though I knew exactly how things would turn out, I still couldn’t stop reading. Now that’s impressive.
The Five Books of Moses Lapinsky is a masterpiece: engrossing, educational, full of human drama that’s still not without comedy. Tulchinsky has done a wonderful job of honouring her family by creating this ficionalised, though still true, tale.