Wednesday, 23 October 2013

If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz

'I should have known that this would happen. My granddaughter is too like me, My daughter too. Sometimes holding something too tightly, trying to guide it too closely will only make it turn against you. Like a river bursting through the dikes and dams and flooding over the fields.'

Ilana has her ways. They are old ways, the ways of the forest, full of magic and mystery, elemental, fundamental. When she leaves the deep, dark, ancient lands of the east for a new life in a bright new country, she carries the spirit of the forest with her, and hopes she can create her own way, create her own story. For her, her daughter Sashie, for her granddaughter Mara and even her great-granddaughter Nomie, in the stories of their lives men are mostly absent, children are mostly wayward, the past is ever present and survival is slippery.
Goodreads description

This novel,  starts in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but it could have been any century as so little has changed. Ilana's childhood world is one of medieval superstition, where fairytales live, as do wood spirits, witches and other demons. It ends in what I took to be modern-day New York.

The opening chapters of Ilana's childhood, youth and escape to America are simply wonderful. The magic and surreal works perfectly here, as you might expect given the beliefs of the people in the "old country". But it is not an idealized view of that world. Buditz does not spare us the brutality and grind of life in which everything is dull and grey: In a place like that, the colour of an egg yolk was something of a miracle. Understandably when Ilana gets to see another world in the interior of a Faberge egg she wants to go to that colourful place. In so doing she rebels against her mother and escapes. In so doing she sets the pattern for daughters rebelling against their mothers that occurs over the four generations of women, whose narratives make up this book. 

Another pattern which is repeated across generations is the role of men, sons and brothers are idealized and more intelligent sisters are both neglected and expected to sacrifice themselves. Nevertheless the men come and go: they disappear, they go to war, they die in foreign lands, even Ilana's husband drifts away mentally before dying, after hearing of his family's deaths in the holocaust. But through it all Ilana remains strong, almost ageless, something her great granddaughter recognizes: Ilana, whom I could not bear to call my great-grandmother because saying the word is like trying to shout across a canyon, across a great distance. And she did not seem far away at all. And Ilana carries the old ways and old beliefs to America, something her daughter and granddaughter despise and dismiss. 

Fairy stories and folktales are woven into the book, appearing in new clothes but still recognizable - one reason why the author has been compared with Angela Carter. I had great fun recognizing spotting them: Little Red Riding Hood, a female Bluebeard, Baba Yaga and the Pied Piper were the most obvious. And what is more they work within the novel. It is partly because of the familiarity of these stories that one can fill in gaps. 

I enjoyed reading this book. Yet again we have a magic realism book which tells the tale of several generations of mothers and daughters. If I were to fault this book it is that with Ilana beinge such a strong character it is difficult sometimes to sustain the same level of engagement when the story turns to Sashie and Mara and they pick up the narrative. This is partly because neither is particularly likeable, indeed Mara is downright psychotic. Both doubt Ilana's tales of life in the old country and dismiss them as lies and fabrications, but when their view of the world and Ilana are also clearly fabrications and self delusions. As Ilana says: The trouble is not in my eyes; my vision is as sharp as ever. It is the world that has become more blurred. My sympathies and interest returned with the arrival of Nomie, who comes to believe her great grandmother: I had not been paying attention in the right way. I had thought her stories were only about her, I had not thought they had anything to do with me. 

The book is beautifully written. There are some wonderfully evocative descriptions: The men made a fermented liquor so colourless it was invisible, nothing but a raging headache stoppered in a bottle.  Images occur and reoccur, with variations, woven into the fabric of the story, sometimes reinforcing Ilana's account of her youth. The book ends with one of loveliest last lines I have ever read, but I will not spoil it for you by repeating it here.  


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