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River Midnightby Lilian Nattel
Synopses & Reviews
Myth meets history in Blaszka, a fictional village in Poland and the site of this beautiful, multi-layered novel set in 1894. Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square, the flimsy stalls piled high with wares, and in the centre Misha the midwife laughing. The wayward heart of Blaszka, she holds safe all the local secrets, including the stories of the four vilda hayas, "the wild creatures," as she and her girlfriends were known. Although the women have grown apart, unexpected love, a daughter imprisoned, and two orphan children sent home from America, entwine their lives again - all as Europe moves headlong towards chaos.
In this magnificent novel of magic and mystery, Lilian Nattel has resurrected a vanished world that explores the tensions between men and women, and celebrates the wordless bonds of friendship in a way that is simply unparalleled.
About the Author
Growing up in Montreal, Lilian Nattel soaked up the stories and customs of her Jewish culture and learned Yiddish from her parents: “My parents spoke Yiddish at home when they didn't want us kids to understand, so of course I learned it well.” The language has been useful while doing research for her novels, as she has been able to read prayers, poems and memoirs in the original. And for Nattel, adherence to historical fact is crucial to bringing her characters to life. As she explained in one interview, “I cant bring myself to be inaccurate. If Im writing about someone wearing a dress in 1895, I want to know the fashion in 1895, what colours were popular in 1895, I want to know the street names, what kind of people lived on that street, I want to know whether they have restaurants yet, how people cooked.”
For Nattel, writing has always been an integral part of who she is and being a full-time author has always been her goal, but it took years for her to write and publish her first book. It was while working as an accountant that she realized she would have to take a new approach and make some sacrifices in order for her dream to come true. Casting aside the preconceptions we all have about writers being driven only by their art, at the expense of everything else in life, Nattel came up with a solid plan that allowed her to explore taking on writing as a profession. “What I did was actually write up a contract with myself,” she has explained in one interview. “It was a five-year contract in which I contracted to give myself five years to see what I could do with writing because it meant a lot of financial sacrifices to have a part-time accounting practice.” In that five years she sold some stories to literary journals and began her first novel, so she signed herself up for another five years. And it was then that The River Midnight caught the attention of her agent, Helen Heller, and then an editor at Scribners in New York. The book was also signed by Knopf Canada and featured in their New Face of Fiction program.
The River Midnight was published in 1999 to international acclaim. Set in 1894, in the fictional village of Blaszka, Poland, the novel tells the magical and multi-layered story of four women who are brought closer together by unexpected love, an imprisoned daughter, and two orphan children sent home from America. One reviewer compared Nattels Blaszka, so full of “mythic significance,” to Gabriel García Márquezs Macondo and William Faulkners Yoknapatawpha County. The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, and rights have been sold in seven countries so far. After its publication, Nattel was finally able to devote herself to writing full-time, though she still approaches her work with the discipline she needed early on: “Writing is a combination of effort and effortless, but theres always a lot more effort. If you just wait for inspiration to strike, its never going to happen. You really have to put in the hours.”
After the success of The River Midnight, Nattel was determined to make sure that her second novel lived up to the expectations of her readers. So much so that she even tore up the third draft of what was to become The Singing Fire. Originally, the book was about a Victorian spinster, but the story just wasnt coming together — all except for about thirty pages, which introduced a girl named Gittel. “I was attempting to write an easy novel,” Nattel has said, “and this other story was trying to push up from underneath.” Beginning again, Nattel created Emilia, and then Nehama, who would become the strongest voice in the finished book. As the story was gestating in Nattels mind, it was also strongly influenced by a major change in her own life: the adoption of two little girls. Her love for her new daughters inspired Nattel to explore what it meant to be a mother, and an adoptive mother, which became a major theme in The Singing Fire.
But for Nattel, having her fiction influenced by her own experiences is nothing new. In fact, it is her own life history that has always driven her to explore, and then to write. “I'm fascinated by history, seeing our present being shaped in the past. This has led me to explore the issues that are important to me, whether it is womens friendship, motherhood, reconciliation or adoption in the historical times and places that have so much influenced who I am now.” Today, Nattel is hard at work on a third novel, set in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which is narrated by an elderly Jewish woman recalling her youth.
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