Rue des Rosiers. Coteau Books
Mad Hatter. Guernica Editions
Twelve years in the planning and six in the writing, Mad Hatter is an intense and tragic book, a synthesis of fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction. Its primary subject is the misguided political endeavours of Christopher Brooke, an early disciple of Oswald Mosley, an organizer for the British Union of Fascists, and eventually a self-styled prophet of the rebirth of the Kingdom of God—destined to rise, preposterously but also distressingly, out of the ashes of Hitler’s failed campaigns. Brooke is a credible figure: not violent, not wilfully cruel, but naive in a way that borders on reckless endangerment—not only of his family name, but of his wife, his fortune, and his children. Amanda Hale understands this personality as well as anyone can, for she is the daughter of James Larratt Battersby (1907-1955), a British pacifist who aligned himself with Mosley and the rise of fascism in the 1930s, was detained as an enemy sympathizer, and (after the war) promoted an increasingly insurrectionist movement known as the League of Christian Reformers. Mad Hatter is thus both a reconstruction of historical events and a family history. Hale has allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps in the record that are now unknowable; in writing this book, she has also found a way to come to terms with a heritage that cannot have been anything less than painful and scarring.
As befits the material, multiple points of view are employed in this narrative. Brooke himself is seen mainly from the outside, preserving the incomprehensibility of his motives. Two first-person narrators provide moving but contrasting perspectives on his actions and their effects. Mary Byrne, a young Irish servant, gifted with second-sight, is an engaging and clear-eyed narrator, a truly marvelous creation. Her astuteness is balanced by the confused impressions of Katie, Brooke’s fourth child, a replica of the author herself in a childhood damaged by uncertainty and family strife. Over and against the personal and emotional upheavals at the centre of this book, the wider world is also explored—the realm of politicians, magistrates, prisons, labour camps, demonstrations, rationing, air raids, and (very much in the shadows) the horrors that Hitler was unleashing throughout Europe.
Though collaboration between the two authors seems unlikely, Mad Hatter is connected to Rue des Rosiers by the stepping stones of history, a path that leads inescapably through the death camps of Germany and Poland, the establishment of the state of Israel, the displacement of the Palestinian people, the Arab-Israeli wars, and comes full-circle (or nearly so) to the acts of terrorism that began to be perpetrated in European cities in the early 1980s. Indeed, connecting these dots is the main business of Rhea Tregebov’s novel. The grenade and gun attack that occurred in a Jewish delicatessen on rue des Rosiers in Paris in August 1982 is the book’s climactic moment. This atrocity is prefigured from the start by the nightmares and obsessions of its central character, Sarah Levine, a young woman who has come to regard history (both public and private) as a doom-filled balance sheet in which nothing goes uncounted. Unmoored and indecisive as a result of her own missteps, by a sister’s attempt at suicide, and by the shadow cast by the Holocaust, she ends up in Paris by a combination of chance and destiny.
The steps that lead Sarah to Rosenberg’s deli are mirrored by those of Laila, a young Palestinian whose own uprootedness is both spiritual and literal. Without knowing it, the two cross paths many times in the streets of Paris, notably in the vicinity of a wall spray-painted by Laila’s lover with his vengeful proclamation: Mort aux juifs. He, of course, is the gunman who completes the arc of history or, in the stark calculus that Sarah eventually rejects, who adds another entry to the long balance sheet of tooth for tooth and wrong for wrong.
Amanda Hale and Rhea Tregebov should meet, if it is not presumptuous to say so. Their paths through history appear also to have intersected in unfathomable ways, and they share an understanding of how the most consequential events can arise out of the toss of a coin, the distortion of a truth, the anxious pursuit of symmetry, the rigid logic of the obsessed. Tregebov has her protagonist ponder Theodor Adorno’s remark that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. Having read these books, I respectfully disagree.
*Erratum: A previous version of this review appearing online referred to a character in Rue des Rosiers as “Laila’s brother,” while the character is in fact her lover.
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