Dr. Rico, May 18, 2007
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It?s a relief to say this is a terrific novel, closer to the wonderful "Kavalier & Clay" than "Summerland" or "Wonder Boys," both of which I found disappointing. The story is principally a hardboiled detective novel in the style of Raymond Chandler, but the unusual setting ? a Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska, in a world where the state of Israel died aborning ? allows Chabon to apply the conventions of the genre in fresh and enjoyable, even delightful, ways.
The early stages of the novel are slower, with a little too much time spent on character development and not enough on plot or setting. The imaginative setting raises all kinds of questions ? what?s it like to live in Sitka? what kind of TV and movies and music do they enjoy, American, Canadian, or homegrown? is there more than one perspective on Tlingit-Jew relations? how did geopolitics evolve, especially in the Middle East, without Israel? ? that Chabon mostly leaves unanswered.
But the plot accelerates nicely about a third of the way in, and the story and the setting collide in satisfying ways. The characters are well drawn, even the minor ones. And Chabon nicely balances the existential despair of the hardboiled genre with the essential optimism-under-pressure of Jewish lore.
Chabon invents a number of Yiddish slang words, Jewish sects, and religious concepts in his story. You don?t have to be Jewish, or familiar with Judaism and Yiddish and Israel, to enjoy the novel ? but it helps.