By: Harvey Freedenberg
Book written by Frederick Reiken (Reagan Arthur Books, $24.99, 336 pages)
It’s always thrilling to watch a skilled author construct a daring narrative that defies our expectations as readers. Frederick Reiken, who teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston, has written two well-received, if fairly conventional, novels, The Odd Sea and The Lost Legends of New Jersey. His latest ranges over half a century and across locations from a Florida swamp, to World War II era Lithuania, to a nursing home in New Jersey, to the Dead Sea, as he enlists 10 narrators to offer their tales, almost in the manner of relay racers handing a baton from one to the other. And, out of this chorus of voices, beautiful, strange and moving links emerge.
That unusual feature isn’t obvious at first, but as characters begin to surface in subsequent chapters, we find ourselves reflecting on everything that’s gone before as we search for the connective tissue that binds these seemingly disparate, often evocative stories. Stories, one character observes, “though they appear to unfold in time, are really spatial things, which means you can go anywhere you want.” Without ever losing control of the narrative, Reiken embraces that principle as the novel subtly moves through time and from place to place.
Two story lines predominate: middle-aged New Jersey pediatrician Beverly Rabinowitz, who fled her Polish home as a 5-year-old and improbably made her way to America with the aid of a Japanese diplomat, aches to discover whether her father was one of two rumored survivors from a group of 500 Jewish men – doctors, lawyers, teachers and poets – massacred on a single day in Lithuania in 1941. In the other, a shadowy figure – Katherine Clay Goldman, a 1960s radical who’s lived her life a step ahead of capture – appears in various almost otherworldly guises, on each occasion acting as something of a rescuer.
These and other characters don’t merely serve as mouthpieces for Reiken’s philosophical musings on time, memory and loss. Each one – an adolescent boy who fears the imminent death of his father from leukemia, a veterinarian who flees to Israel’s Negev Desert to escape a terrifying mold allergy and finds her life connected to a young man who’s been brought there through Goldman’s intercession or the FBI agent who’s been pursuing Goldman for two decades – speaks in a distinctive, memorable voice that both reveals character and advances the story.
All of this leads to the book’s final chapter, and it would be giving too much away to disclose some of the most startling linkages revealed there. That chapter’s narrator is Amnon Grossman, an Israeli biologist who runs a nature reserve noteworthy for its attempt to restore breeds of wildlife named in the Bible. Amnon’s life has been scarred by his innocent involvement in the death of a Palestinian teenager, and his account, in the form of a story told to his unborn daughter, clearly is the novel’s most moving.
But, even here, Reiken backs away from any effort to wrap things in too neat a bow, as Amnon says:
“It is not my intention to speak in riddles, but I will suggest that it is very natural to see all of these things as a big puzzle you must assemble. I will suggest, as well, that certain pieces will not fit, not now or ever, and that you must learn to live with these ambiguities. You must also learn to trust these ambiguities. This is perhaps the most important thing I know.”
Invoking a story by Jose Luis Borges, whose observation about the nature of time serves as the novel’s epigraph, one of the narrators, an elderly man, delivers a summing up that offers a lovely key to unlock some of the secrets of this intricate, beautiful novel:
“The tale becomes whole, and suddenly it is as if we have been staring at a hologram. The entire tale has been there all along. It took me years to understand that this is why I enjoy reading stories. That every story, in this sense, is like the god’s magical sentence.”
These excerpts together reveal why it would be a mistake to think of Day for Night merely as some sort of abstruse intellectual puzzle whose pleasures are accessible only to the cleverest readers. Instead, it’s a novel that’s full of everything that makes stories such a central part of our lives and the ability to read and appreciate them as such a precious gift.