It’s sometime in the mid 90’s in New York city, and Alice, a wistful, serious-minded graduate student is about to hear a lecture by the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida. “How hopeful we were in our cynicism!” she reflects, recalling the scene years later. “…we thought we were at the end of history, we celebrated the end of truth and the abyss of meaning…we were told in every class and in every text and every way that belief was something to be troubled, fractured, fissured, destabilized, until we were hypnotized by the spectacle of shifting the pieces of the mosaic rather than by the quest for some kind of sense of the absolute.” It is an apt description of Alice’s experience as she attempts to uncover both her family history, and a sense of purpose in her own emotionally impoverished existence, a theme that plays out in this book in two dissimilar, but echoing plot lines.
The narrative is set in motion when, while going through her deceased grandmother’s closet, Alice discovers a stash of gold and a diamond studded opal necklace, but what most intrigues her is an envelope, mailed from New Mexico, containing an old black and white photograph of an unfamiliar man and a release form from a psychiatric hospital.
This device, of uncovering something which hints at a secret, something which will forever change the way we perceive a loved one, offers a way of structuring a plot so that the protagonist can discover an unexpected dimension, a new complexity in the story of their family, and ultimately, in themselves. In Jewish literature, it is frequently used as a way of enabling a sense of connection, a richer understanding of the disparity between the relative prosperity and ease of our own lives as compared with those of our ancestors. Here too, the appearance in the narrative of a holocaust survivor who was Alice’s grandmother ‘s best friend in Hungary before the war widens the horizons of the story to insinuate a past that is painful, tumultuous and complex. However, this is in fact not the central story that Friedman wants to tell, and it acts here as a mere backdrop to what is essentially a tale of loneliness and alienation - a story of yearning for connection in a world which offers none.
The second plotline of the book concerns Alice’s young neighbor, an 11 year-old girl called Persephone, who appears at her door one day and invites herself in for a cup of tea. Persephone is precocious and charming. Her mother, an English woman more interested in drugs and “partying”, and her father, a sometime poet, slip in and out of her life at random. Persephone and Alice start spending long hours together on the weekends, with Alice taking her for walks, giving her dinner, and providing companionship. This seems to suit Alice well – she has no steady partner and few friends. What woman in her twenties, living in the East Village in New York, would choose to spend large chunks of her spare time with a child who is neither a relative nor a job? There is a symbiosis of loneliness here, a little bit like playing house – a “virtual life” scenario whose bubble must inevitably burst, leaving pain and emptiness in its wake.
Alice’s family history is similarly disheartening. “I only began to really know my grandmother –and that word suggest too much, since as I learned more about her she only became more enigmatic –during the last month of her life.”, she tells us at the opening of the book. As we move through her story, (the book is narrated by Alice, in a voice that resigns itself to the notion that life is usually disappointing), we learn that not only was Alice’s relationship with her grandmother unaffectionate and sparse, but that the bonds within her family are similarly loose and non-committal. Her sister has turned to Orthodoxy and moved to Israel, neglecting to invite anyone to her wedding – an arranged marriage. Her mother, raising Alice’s 8 year old twin brothers alone, is “still reeling from her own recent widowhood.”
Yet it is Alice’s recently deceased father and his legacy which casts the longest, deepest shadow over this book. “My father had also struggled with his family, especially with his brother. I did not know the source of their animosity. We spent little time together when I was growing up, just the stiff, occasional, unmissable family event.” After his death, Alice comes to know new sides of her father for the first time through the stories of strangers. “He was a severe, serious person… a surgeon and spent long hours at the hospital, where he had a reputation for warmth and devotion that was entirely foreign to me, as his daughter… After his funeral, stranger after stranger came up to me and told me how much his care had meant to them, how steady and reassuring he had been …I felt angry at these testimonies. My father had been distant at home, his reserve only disturbed by his rage… As a child, I loved him like you live a thunderstorm, in awestruck terror. He never spoke about his childhood.”
Freedman’s prose is expressive and lovely, occasionally touched with striking metaphor, sharp imagery and clever observations. Here she is describing an abandoned New Mexico town: “What had happened to this place, and not only to here, to all the stretches of abandoned roadway and deserted downtown? They were like the billboards abandoned on the highway, bleached by the sun and torn by the wind , that showed a happy family eating dinner around a kitchen table…There was no there there.”
Referring to one her students, she tells us,” He had the uneven scruff of the newly bearded, like when you leave the yogurt in the fridge too long and it sprouts a ragged tight fur.”
And this is her boss: “He must have been the only postmodernist at West Point, since the self, in his understanding and the understanding of the textbook for the class, was variable, self-constructed and elusive, a lava lamp of shifting possibilities.”
Like variations on a tune, scenes of abandonment and estrangement recur throughout the novel. Whether in the guise of an essay assigned to her students, her casual dalliances with men, or the anti-climactic resolution in her grandmother’s story, Alice finds loss and absence of meaning at every turn. Ultimately, nothing adds up to anything.
And yet, the meta- narrative is nonetheless not that simple. The way that a writer chooses to conclude a story is never random, and the end of the book takes us back to Alice’s father. Her mother shows her an old photograph depicting a rare moment of connection between father and daughter. “Do you remember?” Her mother asks her. “I did not. I remembered… a cold and distant man who left the house at dawn and came home after we were in bed. But as my mother spoke,” Alice tells us, “the memories from the picture seemed to emerge and lift, like paper lanterns that rise with fire and light the dark night.” These are the words that close the book, as though the author wants to argue that had her father been more of a father to her, the world would now look different.
Ultimately, it is the title, or its absent second half, that reveals the book’s intentions. “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found”, wrote the renown psychoanalyst, D.W Winnicott, and indeed, this book is peopled with characters hiding their truest selves from the world, suffering, reaching out and then pulling away, yearning to be found.
A Joy to be Hidden
By Ariela Freedman
Linda Leith Publishing, 271 pp
Reviewed by Janice Weizman