To Die in Secret
by Haviva Ner-David
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 250 pp.
Reviewed by Patricia Averbach
Not taking up much room in the world, perhaps no room at all, ephemeral and barely existing. She looked out the airplane window at the clouds—floating, like she was. Suspended between here and there.
These first lines of Haviva Ner-David’s new novel, To Die in Secret succinctly describe the central issue confronting Nomi, a sixty-year-old widow en route from the kibbutz in Israel where she’s lived her entire adult life back to her childhood home in Massachusetts, a place she hasn’t seen in forty years.
Nomi doesn’t want to return to the States, certainly not at the height of the Covid epidemic, but her sister Jude and nephew have died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s the sole executor of their estates and guardian of her mother who’s suffering from dementia. As Nomi gazes out the window of the plane speeding toward a confrontation with her distant past, she thinks: Her repeated fate: leaving with practically nothing, not even much of a plan.
While this book is fiction, Ner-David’s personal experience growing up in the States and living for many years in Israel informs the novel. To Die in Secret is enriched by the perspective of an author who can represent widely divergent characters and settings with authority and insight. On one level, this book can be read as a charming tale of second chances and coming home, but there are other, deeper levels that tackle themes of feminism, parenting, rape, spirituality, and survival.
At eighteen Naomi, as she was then known, suffered a traumatic date-rape. When her parents reproached her with guilt and shame rather than providing the love and support she craved, she packed a suitcase, and moved to Israel where she made a new life with her beloved Avi, a kind, gentle man she met soon after arriving at Kibbutz Areivim. Her life with Avi, childless but content, was spent a world away from the upper-middle class suburb outside Boston where she was born. She changed her name to Nomi and never saw her parents or her sister Jude, again, although she did retain a strained long-distance relationship with them all.
As she makes her way to Northville, the small New England town where her sister lived and ultimately died, she sees the trees ablaze with color. Nomi took in the sight of the fall foliage now on both sides of the highway like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea with walls of water on each side. Only this looked more like walls of fire—with its power for both warmth and destruction. Either way it was an awesome sight.
Northville, Massachusetts turns out to be a warm and friendly town and Nomi is instantly befriended by John, the handsome police officer investigating her sister’s and nephew’s deaths. As their relationship deepens, the possibility of romance emerges despite the heavy burden of grief each of them carries. I loved that as soon as John greets her, Nomi thinks she hears a trace of the accent she remembers from her childhood. Her own accent had never been this strong—somehow, the Jews in the area never had as strong accents as those whose ancestors went back to the Mayflower…
But John isn’t the only appealing character she meets in Northville. There’s Frank, the paraplegic Buddhist biker, Diane, who runs a home for unwed mothers, Elvis, the hound she inherits with her sister’s house, and Ruth, the unwed, outspoken, and pregnant daughter of the town’s Orthodox rabbi. And of course, there’s the house itself, a large seventeenth century colonial with a dark past that’s rumored to be haunted.
Nomi discovers a holocaust diary that her sister was reading not long before she died. She picks up the book and finds the story of Batja and her son Izaak who were hiding from the Nazis in an attic crawlspace in wartime Poland. She reads, "I have learned to adjust to what felt impossible every step of the way. If this is what we must do, I will do it. If not for my own wretched life, at least for my son." As Nomi learns about the horrific ordeal endured by this mother and son, she is simultaneously trying to solve the mystery of how her own sister and nephew lost their lives. Did the stress of mothering a troubled, possibly psychotic, son stretch her own sister to the breaking point?
As Nomi reconnects with her own mother, she uncovers other stories of women mothering children under circumstances as harrowing and diverse as the holocaust and the Salem witch trials. There are other iterations of the mother- child theme as well. There’s the story of Ruth, the young, unwed daughter of an Orthodox rabbi who must decide whether or not to keep her baby, and the dark story of Leah Marshall, a seventeenth century woman hanged for killing the infant daughter she’d named Despair. Both these women became pregnant as a result of rape, another potent theme woven throughout this novel.
Nomi’s own experience with date-rape as a teen-ager reshaped her life and resulted in her long alienation from her family. Returning to Massachusetts gives her the opportunity to revisit this experience and find the closure she’s always longed for. The reader roots for Nomi as she struggles to heal the wounds inflicted in her youth and come to terms with the family she left behind.
Near the end of the novel, Nomi and Ruth conduct a Jewish exorcism ceremony to cleanse the house of Leah Marshall’s ghost. 'The world is changing,' Ruth continued. 'I know it seems grim sometimes. I know you were in despair—as you named your daughter. But we know there are angels all around us. Maybe you had some too, but just couldn’t see them. But we do. We won’t give up hope.'
At its heart, To Die in Secret is a thoughtful meditation on love and loss, spirituality and tradition, pain and forgiveness wrapped in a well-written mystery that embraces multiple cultures and periods of time. It would make a great book club selection for its diverse characters, well-wrought settings, and thought-provoking themes. Highly recommended.
Patricia Averbach began her writing career at sixteen as literary assistant to Anzia Yeszierska, Jewish-American author of the immigrant experience. A native Clevelander, she’s a former director of The Chautauqua Writers Center in Chautauqua, New York. Her upcoming novel, Dreams of Drowning (Bedazzled Ink, 2024), was a finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books and Chanticleer’s Somerset Award for Literary Fiction. Previous novels include Painting Bridges (Bottom Dog Press, 2013) and Resurrecting Rain (Golden Antelope Press, 2020.) Her poetry chapbook, Missing Persons, (Ward Wood Publishing, 2013) was cited by Times of London Literary Supplement (November 2014) as one of the best small collections of the year. She lives with her husband in a suburb of Cleveland when she’s not visiting her daughters in Toronto, Maui and Peru.