A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

If I were to teach a class on Rachel Barenbaum’s debut novel (it would heartily stand up to such a thing), I would instruct students to look for two things: character conflict and layering. Really, those are the same thing. As Barenbaum reveals more about her characters and their values, their implicit and explicit conflicts become more and more visible, and we become more and more invested in the outcome. Before I knew it, I found I had been subtly drawn into the plot, and I enjoyed watching how Barenbaum did it.

Miri’s initial conflict is excellent: the first female surgeon, she assumes a lot of pressure, not only from the lives under her hands but also from the precedents she will set for future women and Jews in medicine. Her fiance, Yuri, too, has staked his reputation on her ability, to say nothing about her relation to her brother, Vanya, who has his own barriers to break. That all of this is set in Russia at the cusp of WWI makes the conflicts deeper and even more poignant.

Barenbaum’s prose is very subtle: she quickly builds context around the Jews’ plight without needing too much broad exposition of the times (I read her novel while halfway through rereading a work by Dostoevsky; the contrast in style was interesting to say the least). Having had to deal with it in my own writing, I greatly admired how much she must have resisted the temptation to include more than the few but consistent hints that, nonetheless, open whole other aspects of her characters. At first I thought she was a bit free with her rhetorical questions, but I soon realized they were probably the best way to drive the narrative without compromising the characters’ limited perspective. Her voice is consistent throughout the novel, and it’s very easy to fall into a rhythm with her story without being distracted by the narrator.

Barenbaum’s description of Kovno and the other locations (including several one-shot, time-period-specific moments) made me wonder at how much she must have researched the pre-WWI Russian Empire and visited the sites, or whether she had merely taken poetic license; both possibilities only increased my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, it made me want to travel to the sites to check and experience her descriptions of the locations and the weather for myself, as well as to do homage to the people represented by her characters (which might be an indicator of good historical fiction). Her incorporation of both Jewish and Russian folklore into the story further drew me into the settings and conflicts of the times, especially with the historical hindsight without which it’s impossible to read the novel. A sucker for the historical part of “historical fiction,” I found myself wanting through the first quarter of the book a more explicit description of Czarist Russia, but then I realized Barenbaum had provided it–in the form of the soldiers surrounding the Jewish characters. Again, though she could probably tell me all I’d wish to know, she only includes enough detail to tell her characters’ stories, and her plot benefits from that excellent-because-invisible discipline.

The contrast between Russian folklore and the paradoxical science and Jewish folklore of Vanya and Miri is an interesting theme. Whatever unnuanced dismissal of mysticism one might expect from the book is (again, subtly) undercut by Barenbaum’s division of the chapters and sections by the Jewish months and festivals. In other words, if one wants a simple “superstition vs science” division between characters and values, A Bend in the Stars might not be the book to read (or it might be the perfect book to read). By Barenbaum’s narration (and this might be more than a bit of interpretation on my part), the supposed “superstitions” of the main characters’ Jewish folklore are what give their lives structure, for good or ill, and it is these aspects of their identity — at times deeper than their respective expertise in surgery or astrophysics — which give them the tools to overcome the many obstacles that come their way in those areas.

In sum, I’ve already recommended A Bend in the Stars to several friends, both bookworms and science majors alike, and I hope it continues to gain traction in the reader community. Barenbaum’s use of character conflicts to drive the plot is exemplary, and I look forward to seeing what else she produces and how she grows as an author.

Author: dustinllovell

Writing professor, literature and US history tutor, previous ESL instructor, and would-be novelist who enjoys/specializes in Shakespeare, 19th century lit, and philosophy (whether in print or via audiobook). Author of the novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light (Wipf and Stock, Resources Imprint). Member of Heterodox Academy. Columnist for The Mallard.

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