The novel 'Fervor' separates psychosis, spirits and family


Book Review

Fervor

By Toby Lloyd
Avid Reader Press: 288 pages, $28
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Jews like me love to sadly say that where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. Toby Lloyd’s debut novel, “Fervor,” which focuses on the disintegration of a Jewish family over the course of about a decade, certainly aligns with that line; In fact, there are many more opinions and interpretations than seem possible.

In the first chapter, it is 1999, and the Rosenthals (Eric and Hannah and their three children, Gideon, Elsie and Tovyah) are facing the imminent death of Eric's father, Yosef, a Holocaust survivor who for the last decade has lived in the stately attic of a family home in London. Each of the children is sent to speak with Yosef in his final hours, and each receives some type of wisdom or warning. Gideon is told that he will someday move to Israel (he does); Elsie is told that she hears God's voice (she could); and Tovyah is told: “Be careful with Elsie. And Gideon. The second son protects others, right? “He carries the torch.” Tovyah, like the younger child, is perplexed, and an attentive reader might be too. Does “Caring” mean “caring”? Or does it mean “beware”? Are the “others” Tovyah's siblings or could they be his parents? Even from the first chapter we are already in complicated waters.

In the months after Yosef's death, Elsie's behavior seems to change. First, in small, innocuous ways, like spending more time alone in her room, carrying a stone from Yosef's tomb, and scaring her friends and teachers with violent stories adapted from the Hebrew Bible. Hannah isn't too worried about her daughter misbehaving because, after all, Elsie is 14 years old. However, later, Elsie runs away from her and, when the police return her four days later, she does not tell anyone where she has been or what she has been doing. Things get worse from then on, but it takes us some time to learn exactly how.

Elsie is not really the main character of the novel; if “Fervor” has one, it is Tovyah, his younger brother, although, like Elsie, we learn about him only from a narrative distance. After the first few chapters, the novel takes readers to the year 2008, when Tovyah begins attending Oxford University and meets her neighbor Kate, who has recently discovered her Jewish heritage and is becoming interested in she. Kate narrates much of the novel, and it is largely through her eyes that we learn more about the Rosenthals and what they have been through in the years since Elsie first disappeared.

As Kate seeks Tovyah's friendship and good opinion, she discovers that he is no longer Orthodox like her parents and, in fact, is deeply critical of them and how they have handled her sister's difficulties over the years. He has also become a cynical, prickly, and often snobbish intellectual, all of which attracts Kate almost despite herself. Covertly, Kate begins to investigate why Tovyah's mother, Hannah, a journalist turned columnist and memoirist, is so well-known and reviled at the university, and discovers that it is largely due to her stridently Zionist politics. But Hannah is also known for her memoirs about her father-in-law, Yosef, in which she shares horror stories from her past in Treblinka, which neither her husband nor Yosef himself wanted her to expose.

Things come to a head when press attention leading up to the publication of Hannah's new book reveals that it is about Elsie, who has spent years in and out of psychiatric institutions, and Hannah's conviction that Elsie has been possessed or has practiced various dark magics: a strange concept for an Orthodox woman to cling to, especially one who knows little about Jewish mystical traditions.

While the plots of “Fervor” unfold somewhat haphazardly, Lloyd's prose is crisp and fluid, and the book's structure raises questions about its own reliability that only add to the uncomfortable atmosphere in which it is immersed. The novel moves between omniscient chapters and first-person chapters. narrated by Kate, and both occasionally include text from Hannah's memoirs. However, Kate is only referred to by her name once within the omniscient chapters, which made me wonder if anything in the novel is in fact omniscient (and therefore presumably trustworthy) or whether everything is actually narrated by Kate, whose fascination with the Rosenthals and their dysfunction grows over time; It's easy to imagine her, years after the events of the book, trying to piece together how things might have gone in that family, imagining her way into her story and writing about it with unearned authority.

The central tension of the novel is intended to be what really happened, and continues to happen, to Elsie. Each of the Rosenthals, including Elsie herself, has their own interpretation of her. But the real core of the story has to do with the very nature of meaning-making. How does faith affect the way we understand the world? How does rationalism arise? And how much do we trust the evidence of our own senses when they do not fall within our sensory understanding of the world?

Tovyah, for example, is convinced that her mother is overly ambitious and sensationalizes her daughter's mental illness for literary gain. He sees Elsie's fixation on Yosef and the spirit world as symptoms of her psychosis. However, in his childhood, before Yosef's death, Tovyah saw someone in Elsie's room that he shouldn't have been there, who we later learn has been dead for decades. How does Tovyah explain this to himself? He can't and he doesn't either.

“Fervor” is a disconcerting but fascinating novel. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which is no doubt frustrating for some readers, but I found it enjoyable and very Jewish.

Ilana Masad is a book and cultural critic and author of “All My Mother's Lovers.”

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