22 March 2007

The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin

Jeff VanderMeer has reported that Tamar Yellin is the first recipient of the $100,000 Jewish Book Council Award for her first novel, The Genizah at the House Of Shepher. This is excellent news, indeed, and I thought I would take the opportunity to reprint here a review of the book that I wrote for the Summer 2005 print edition of Rain Taxi:


Now that we live in an age when all codes decipher to Da Vinci, it is difficult to approach a novel like The Genizah at the House of Shepher on its own terms, because here we have a story of religious scholars and lost Bibles and intrigues of mysticism, the bare plot of which might suggest the author was gunning for bestseller lists and Hollywood. But Tamar Yellin's first novel is not a thriller, nor will it appeal to anyone looking for grand conspiracy theories. It is, instead, a family memoir wrought in fiction, a contemplation of history and fate, a mishmash amalgam of memories and myths.

"Genizah" is the Yiddish word for a place where manuscripts (generally defective or damaged) are stored. Shepher is the name of the family whose history is chronicled by Shulamit, great-granddaughter of Shalom Shepher, the greatest corrector of scrolls in Lithuania and a man who may have made contact with one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Shulamit, a British biblical scholar, returns to her family's home in Israel to learn about the codex that has been discovered in the attic of the house, a codex that may be the most perfect extant text of the Hebrew bible, or it may be a fake. She lays out the family history in glimpses and puzzle pieces, paralleling the story of her visit to Jerusalem with shards from the Shepher past.

Early in the novel, Shulamit says, "The line of tension between choice and chance is the thread by which the miracle of existence hangs," and this idea becomes the foundation of each of the novel's short chapters, as Shulamit explores not only her family's history, but her own relationship to it. She is a curiously hollow person, someone who has fought against the emotions of her life by drowning herself in the minutia of scholarship, afraid of her sense of dislocation and longing, unsure of her own motivations and desires. It is only toward the end of the book that Shulamit's own personal history is revealed in any detail, though by then it is too late, because having been merely a conduit for her family's story up to that point, it is difficult for her to attract much attention, and so she dissolves into the haze of the book's last pages.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher is a magnificently crafted novel, with each paragraph seemingly placed with tremendous care, each sentence polished to a metallic shine. It is not a difficult book to admire, but the hollowness at Shulamit's core prevents much emotional connection to her or the story, and so the reader is placed in Shulamit's own position, left to analyze and weigh the evidence presented, to sift the stories and weed through the myths with even more objectivity than Shulamit herself possesses (being, as she is, a part of the tale). Unlike a mystery story where the resolution provides the most pleasure, here we have a story where few mysteries are definitively resolved, little is truly in jeopardy, and the pleasure comes not from the cessation of suspense, but from the intellectual journey offered.

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