At the heart of Stephanie Feldman's debut, The Angel of Losses, is a deceptively straightforward story. The heroine, Marjorie, is a Ph.D. student living and studying in New York. Her subject is the "Wandering Jew" — the mapping and reclamation of an ancient legend. She spends her days in the library, reading and researching, the evenings redrafting and honing her thesis. She is a woman with "a weakness for stories," but one who is often selfish and cold. When we meet her, she seems well on the way to walling herself into an ivory tower.
Marjorie is intolerant and suspicious of her brother-in-law, Nathan — for whom her sister Holly has converted to Orthodox Judaism — despite a shared obsession with the esoteric texts of his faith. The sisters were close as girls, but now each encounter ends in misunderstanding and recrimination. And there's no doubt that our heroine is often the one at fault.
When Holly clears out the house in preparation for the birth of her first child, she invites her sister to claim what she wants of the family's library. Among the books, Marjorie finds a notebook containing a closely written account of the legend of the White Rebbe, a powerful, miracle-performing rabbi who is said to be an immortal, cursed to wander the earth until the coming of the Messiah. It is here that the treasures in Feldman's breathtakingly accomplished debut begin to unfold into a story of magic and bold imagining.
Feldman's prose is beautifully crafted throughout, but where she tells of the White Rebbe and his fateful pact with Yode'a, the Angel of Losses, her prose takes on the cadences of a biblical tale` and offers up some of the book's most memorable writing: "As the first son granted to the rebbe, who was already late in life and parent to three daughters, Solomon was called to study as soon as he could speak. He was too small to hold his father's books, and so they were spread before him like the fields of a kingdom are spread before a prince."
This story, and the notebook, are the inheritance that Marjorie has longed for; she becomes convinced that the stories of the Rebbe are connected to her research and, more important, that they will allow her to understand the anger and despair with which her grandfather faced his last days. Although it is clear there had been a close bond between the two, for much of the book the grandfather we see through Marjorie's memory is neither gentle nor kind.
In one scene, Marjorie recalls being summoned on a late night winter excursion to the waterfront, her studies interrupted. "If the Almighty could be perceived by the human mind," her grandfather says to her as they watch the waves crash against the shore, "he would be this. The filthy ocean biting down on Coney Island." This disapprobation of faith allows a glimpse of the secret her grandfather took to his grave. Such a statement, filled with fury and disgust, could only come from one who had once believed.
There are enough clues at this point for the reader to be sure which 20th century tragedy it is that Eli has tried to erase from memory. We discover that Marjorie is right to think that the story of the White Rebbe will eventually deliver the truth of her grandfather's past. But the impact of the tale on her own life, as she searches for the three remaining notebooks she knows her grandfather also left behind, as her relationship with Holly and Nathan deteriorates and as her newborn nephew falls ill, soon takes on the fateful cast of the legend itself.
The conflict between the sisters and the uncovering of a family secret could have made for an easily recognizable contemporary New York family drama — and probably quite a good one. But Feldman is an ambitious writer who conjures up instead a deeply moving modern-day fable that far transcends the boundaries of its location and time. As she moves between the Rebbe's wanderings, grandfather Eli's tribulation and Marjorie's quest for the truth of her family's past, she has written a story that is at once thriller and mystery; and a nuanced exploration of the inheritance of loss and the guilt of survival as it is passed down through generations.
Every once in a while a book comes along that reminds us that even though a horror was visited upon a particular people, in a particular place and at particular moment in history, the story told is really about all of us, everywhere and for all time. It takes an extraordinary writer like Stephanie Feldman to bring that story to life.
Ellah Allfrey is an editor and critic. She lives in London.