Why I can’t write a Book Review for “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” by Ruth Gillian.
Summary: At the start of the twentieth century, a young girl and her family emigrate from the continent in search of a better life in America, only to pitch up in Ireland by mistake. In 1958, a mute boy locked away in a mental institution outside of Dublin forms an unlikely friendship with a man consumed by the story of the love he lost nearly two decades earlier. And in present-day London, an Irish journalist is forced to confront her conflicting notions of identity and family when her Jewish boyfriend asks her to make a true leap of faith. Spanning generations and braiding together three unforgettable voices, “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” shows us what it means to belong, and how storytelling can redeem us all.
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, Contemporary, Ireland, England; Other Categories: Novel, Jewish.
I really wanted to like this book, because I think that Gillian is a talented writer. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish reading this book. On the plus side, the contemporary parts of this book were very interesting, if not compelling. For example, in the modern section, Aisling’s slow discovery of the Jewish world, while fighting the urge to get more committed to it was very nicely done. However, the historical parts put me off most of the time. I didn’t understand the characters – either their language, or their motivations. I realize that had I finished this book, some of these questions might have been answered, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that I found myself wanting to skip over large chunks of the narrative.
I think the problem was that Gillian’s inexperience made her try a bit too hard to impress the Jewish and Irish aspects of this book. I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors, and I’ve never read one where felt like I was overwhelmed with jargon and slang, like I found in this story. In fact, some of the inclusions were so heavy with unfamiliar words and phrases that I didn’t understand what was being said or what was going on. Unfortunately, these interjections came far too often, and they were jarring, to say the least. Certainly, her editor should have realized this, and toned it down – unless that person too was worried that the book wouldn’t sound either Jewish or Irish enough for the American public. For me, the heavy use of Irish and Yiddish slang/jargon felt pretentious. More importantly, if your story doesn’t sound Irish or Jewish enough so that you have to throw these in at every turn, then maybe you’ve not chosen the right subject matter.
I might have continued on, doing my best to ignore this, but the final death knell for me came when she broke my #1 cardinal rule of writing Jewish characters – glaring mistakes on simple points of Judaism.
In truth, am willing to forgive a whole lot. For example, having a character take a knife and stab it in the dirt ten times to make it Kosher, is correct – for a knife that has been defiled. However, Gillian makes it out that this was the method to make the knives kosher for Passover. No – for Passover, you dip an already kosher knife in boiling water in order to use it during the holiday. She also has the girl check to make sure the blades of the knives aren’t nicked. Um, that’s only necessary for someone who is about to slaughter an animal in the kosher way. Then she says that the family will be having roasted lamb for the Passover meal. Well, if this family came from Eastern Europe, that means they’re Ashkenazim. I’m afraid that the tradition of eating lamb on Passover is a Sephardic/Mizrachi one (people from Spain and North African countries); Ashkenazim don’t have a tradition of making lamb for Passover. You see, the Sephardic/Mizrachi Jews make lamb in honor the pascal lamb and whose blood was used to signal the angel of death to pass over the Israelites’ homes with the last plague visited upon the Egyptians – the killing of the first born. Ashkenazim believe that sacrificial offerings are intended only for Temple sacrifice and since the Temple was destroyed, there is now no place for that sacrifice, and it would therefore be sacrilegious to eat lamb at Passover.
I would like to note that in modern-day Israel, these two groups finally had a chance to come together. But back in the 1900s, they knew little to nothing about each other, having been separated for centuries in the Diaspora. Therefore, they would not have had the opportunity to adopt each others’ traditions like they do today, so this family would have had chicken or beef for the Passover meal.
All of these are mistakes that have a basis in some kind of real Jewish ritual or tradition, but they’re all just a bit misplaced, and used out of their proper context. However, what was unforgivable, and what made me stop reading was when Gillian described this strictly religious Jewish household having that lamb with a side dish of potatoes, and those potatoes would be “dripping in butter“! Ahem, but that’s a resounding NO! Jews who keep Kosher do not mix milk/dairy and meat in the same meal – butter is dairy, lamb is meat. It it is the absolute most basic of all things that Jewish dietary laws forbid, and for me, that was a bridge too far. No one who goes to the amount of trouble she describes in this book to get their house Kosher and ready for Passover, would ever in their right mind put butter on potatoes for a meat meal. Never. That’s when I virtually threw this book across the room and stopped reading. (By the way, when I informed the publisher of these problems, they said they had consulted with a rabbi to fact check the book. I think they consulted with a rabbit – probably the Easter Bunny – because NO rabbi, no matter how liberal, would have allowed the author to mention eating butter with a meat meal!) Okay, that was harsh, I admit. However, this is a pet peeve of mine, and maybe it won’t bother others. Therefore, I will fully accept that the four and five star ratings of other readers are all fully valid. I only wish I could have finished this book, but I just couldn’t. Sorry!
If I haven’t convinced you not to read this novel, this book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Foyles, Waterstones, WHSmith, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you.