Rue Des Rosiers
by Rhea Tregebov
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-506990
Rue Des Rosiers by Vancouverite Rhea Tregebov is not just an exemplary novel, it’s also an important book that examines anti-Semitism and empathetically puts faces on the victims and aggressors, and my hope is that the novel receives the major attention it warrants. In this richly-layered story, multi-genre author Tregebov introduces us to 1980s Toronto and Paris, and the life of 25-year-old Jewish protagonist Sarah – intelligent, questioning, and floundering – who feels the aftershocks of the generations-earlier Holocaust and suffers nightmares she can’t explain.
Readers can expect credibility and precise craft on every page as Sarah, the youngest of three daughters raised in Winnipeg, wrestles with a long-ago abortion, sibling dynamics, career choices, an emotionally-wrenching Holocaust history class, and her relationship with upwardly-mobile Michael, a lawyer who invites her to join him in Paris. Sarah despises the word “Jewess,” and even dislikes the word “Jew”: “I always hear the slur,” she says. “Hear all this weight behind the word: history, the war.” She makes almost every yes-no decision with the turn of a lucky penny.
This is also the story of Laila, who’s come to Paris from war-battered Palestine with a man who lives for revenge against the Jews. Both Laila and Sarah are trying to ascertain their raison d’être, and attempting to learn – within very different circumstances – how one can live meaningfully in a world shadowed with fear, guilt, and expectation. Laila considers herself “a weed in the crack in the sidewalk” and desperately desires not “to be nothing.”
Tregebov wields an uncanny knack for expressing much – whether about an individual’s emotional state or the sad truth about what some social workers feel re: their efficacy – in just a line or two. “He was all she saw,” for example, is a phrase used with great effect.
If an award for effective writing about sisterly connections was given, Tregebov could claim it for the scene in which Sarah’s being soothed by her sister Rose, post-abortion. Rose is beside morose Sarah on her bed: “Rose’s body was an edge to her own, a dam, so she wouldn’t spill over. A container, so even if her body wasn’t a solid, she wouldn’t dissolve.” Sarah’s sister is “The only thing holding her on the earth.”
Paris is exceptionally well-evoked; I felt I was exploring the lanes, patisseries, bridges, gardens, and metro stations right beside Sarah. She finds Luxembourg Gardens especially serene.
I believe Sarah when she’s empathizing with Holocaust victims. I believe her when she’s drunk with friends in Paris. I believe her when she’s grief-stricken about her abortion and her sister Rose’s suicide attempt; or examining Impressionist paintings at the Jeu de Paume gallery; or sitting alone in a Paris traiteur chinois ordering “honey garlic ribs and beef with broccoli in black bean sauce.” (The book’s saturated with delicious descriptions of food.) I believe Sarah, also, when in the midst of unspeakable horror, she does something “unequivocally good.” You will believe her – and Laila – too.
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