In the fecund imagination of Toronto writer Lilian Nattel only a flimsy veil separates the world of the living and that of the dead. Her new novel, The Singing Fire, is peopled not only by characters of flesh and blood but also by protective ghosts attempting to save mortals from themselves and even interceding on their behalf with the power on high. Yes, Nattel’s fictional firmament is presided over by a Court of Heaven and a God who writes in a golden book. Kabbalistic lore gets a hearing too. “Tradition says that in the beginning there was only God. Then came the tzim-tzum. The Holy One withdrew to make space for creation, though it left him lonely and it left us lonely, separated from each other. The feminine aspect of God didn’t go, but stayed with us in our exile, and She, the divine presence among living beings, is called the Shekhina. She sings and cries and comforts us with her broken wings as she is also limited by the world of imperfect stuff.”

Despite its otherworldly dimensions, compared to Nattel’s highly acclaimed first novel The River Midnight, The Singing Fire is bracingly realistic. For one thing it’s firmly rooted in actual places. The River Midnight was set in an imaginary Polish shtetl where magical events—humans turning themselves into frogs then back again, cameo appearances by the Angel of Death—were commonplace. A more controlled and mature work than its predecessor, The Singing Fire takes place primarily in the East End of London in the last quarter of the 19th century.

In the era of Jack the Ripper, the city’s underworld and its Jewish ghetto were adjacent to one another. A five-minute walk divided the brothels, gaming houses, and crime-infested pubs of Dorset Street from the synagogues, stalls, and tailors’ workshops of Petticoat Lane. “The two kinds of streets were right next to each other, like the world of the living and the world of the dead, but you couldn’t cross over from one to the other.”

The Singing Fire is the story of Nehama Korzen, who makes the impossible leap from Dorset Street to Frying Pan Alley, a mean passageway off Petticoat Lane which seems like a corner of heaven after her experiences on the other side of the invisible boundary. Nehama is a wonderful fictional creation, a haplessly innocent 17-year-old when the book opens. The youngest of six sisters, she runs away from Plotsk in Poland in search of her dream, a house of her own, “and, even more important, some heroic act that would surprise everyone.” Quite predictably, she falls into the clutches of unscrupulous and heartless operators as soon as she docks in London, penniless and unable to speak a word of English.

Nehama’s degradation (she is literally sold into prostitution) is total, and almost unbearably painful to read. A combination of pluck, luck, and the kindness of strangers propels her back to freedom. In material terms, she will never rise above Frying Pan Alley—her ambition to own even a small shop of her own repeatedly foiled by harsh circumstance—but she will grow mightily in character and spirit. Nehama thirsts for knowledge almost as much as she does for the necessities of life; over the course of 25 years, she will build up a library of precious second-hand books that includes Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist. But her favourite is a cheap romance “about the girl who wasn’t beautiful or good but rebellious. She never compromised herself, not for lover and not for God, and always she looked for a way to live.”

Nehama’s story is twined with that of Emilia Rosenberg, a pregnant runaway from Minsk in Russia. Emilia is beautiful, educated, and wealthy but emotionally stunted by a poisonous home environment, in which her monster of a father preys upon her neurotic mother. Nehama becomes Emilia’s guardian angel in London, deflecting her from a career on the streets. Emilia rewards Nehama’s generosity by abandoning her child to her care and escaping across town to Soho in the West End. Hanging a gold crucifix around her neck, she passes as a Christian and finds a job in the curio department of Liberty’s. A less-than-believable chain of circumstances leads to her marriage to a successful Jewish writer, whose assimilationist family gives her a surprisingly warm welcome.

Contrived as this plot twist is, it allows Nattel scope to contrast Jewish life in the East and West Ends of the city of 5 million with its 100,000 “enormously visible” Jews. In a mini ghetto among the prostitutes of the theatre district, shops carry Yiddish signs “and the market smelled just like the East End, but here Jews brought gallery tickets to the English theatre.” West End Jews look down their noses at the vibrant Yiddish theatre life across town; to them real culture must be English, the language of Shakespeare. Emilia’s prosperous in-laws call Yiddish a jargon, even though it remains the language of the family’s sage patriarch. They cringe and fret as boatloads of immigrants arrive in London and the “Jewish question” is debated in Parliament. “After all, it had been only 700 years since the Jews were expelled from England and seven since they’d been driven out of Moscow.”

By turns earthy, by turns lyrical, The Singing Fire authoritatively conjures up the fog-and-smoke filled breath of London, at the same time as it’s steeped in an atmosphere of mystery, reaching for soaring, transcendental truths. Nattel’s greatest strength, however, is not as a stylist but as an old-fashioned storyteller. In the indomitable Nehama and her devoted husband, Nathan, she has fashioned two unforgettable characters over whose fates, I must confess, I wept unabashedly more than once as I raced through this fine novel.

The Singing Fire

by Liliane Nattel

Review published in

January 30, 2004

Return to Essays/Articles