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Swan songs of the soul

November 20, 2016


Although Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is not Ruth Gilligan’s debut novel (her first book Forget was an Irish bestseller), it does at times come across as one. Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that the author makes a specific effort to write about Irish people of Jewish ancestry — a much neglected but rather original topic. Her book alternates between the lives of three main characters, separated by decades yet linked by means of certain plausible historical connections. Since issues of conflicting race and religion are of paramount importance to Gilligan’s agenda, in spite of her established experience insofar as creative writing is concerned she often appears to be tentatively treading unfamiliar ground. While this diversity does not detract from the general charms of the book, some readers might find that her writing in this novel simply skims the surface of some deep and highly complex global issues. At a little over 300 pages, the novel is an engaging and fast-moving book — a step up from the traditional beach-read which generally follows a lighter mode.

Gilligan keeps the narrative strands of her characters’ lives distinctly separate from each other, and hence their stories are relatively easy to follow. At the beginning of the 20th century Ruth Greenberg’s family escapes severe European pogroms by sailing for America. In a turn of events that is as poignant as it is darkly amusing, they disembark at Cork, Ireland — mistaking it for New York. The adventure is depicted primarily through Ruth’s eyes; she is a curious and bright child who displays deep connections to her Jewish roots even though she is barely past being a toddler. Her parents never leave Cork, though her older sister Esther makes haste to get to the real New York as soon as she comes of age. Their father, Moshe Greenberg, a struggling playwright, never really establishes himself as even a moderately successful writer in Ireland; his loving, long-suffering family eventually gives up on the hope that he will write his great magnum opus someday.

What crushes Moshe’s spirit is not the anti-Semitism common in Ireland during the early portion of the 20th century (aptly depicted by Gilligan); rather, it is his cussed inability to realise that he has as little creative talent as many of his wealthier, more pretentious connections. To illustrate this point, Gilligan introduces a haughty, rather unappealing noblewoman who pens utterly mediocre plays and expects Moshe and others to gush over them. The lady’s only redeeming feature lies in her being the diametric opposite of the Greenbergs’ hired help, an Irish gentile named Niamh who possesses the almost magical creative ability to spin engrossing yarns based on established Irish folklore and legend.

Ruth Gilligan’s second novel centres on how narratives about common human emotions transcend all manner of cultural differences

Continuing on her personal storytelling path, Gilligan jumps five decades ahead and recounts the adventures of Shem Sweeney, a teenage boy who was struck mute after his bar mitzvah. Placed by his despairing parents in the care of some rather strict and frightening nuns, Shem strikes up an unlikely friendship with his elderly roommate, Alf, who appears to be suffering from advanced dementia. Although she never unlocks Shem’s tongue, Gilligan does lead gradually towards making us aware of precisely why he ceased speaking. Without divulging too much of the plot I can safely state that the secret, though ostensibly not particularly threatening to an outsider, holds monumental significance for Shem. In spite of his parents’ desperate entreaties, a holy pilgrimage intended to cure him of his malady, and even his own deep desires, he remains resolutely mute.

It is revealed that there is nothing wrong with Shem’s vocal chords; he simply lives in such terror of betraying a loved one, that as the novel progresses, his situation shifts from being simply problematic to becoming genuinely tragic. Alf’s story links briefly to Ruth’s, but it is to Gilligan’s credit that both tales stand well enough on their own with neither striving to overwhelm the other. Shem’s slightly wayward mother was originally Catholic, but she fell in love with a Jewish man whose main aim in life is to flee to the promised land of Israel, regardless of how much emotional child-neglect that might entail. In some ways Shem is the most wryly humorous character in the book, and this serves to make his story all the more memorable especially since virtually everyone around him is dour, grim, or just pathetic.

Gilligan’s final character, Aisling Creedon, a Catholic Irishwoman romantically involved with a Jewish man, appears in the novel over a hundred years after Ruth makes her initial journey. Although Aisling has a good relationship with her boyfriend Noah, he makes it clear that his family expects her to convert to Judaism if they are to have a solid future as a couple. He hands Aisling an old, leather-bound book about conversion that links implicitly to Shem’s story. Resentful at being pressured into making this decision, Aisling flees London and returns to her home in Ireland where she contemplates Noah’s request and immerses herself in the book. Delving into the manuscript’s history, she attempts to solve her present-day problems vis-à-vis lessons from the past.

“Under the weight of confusion the girl sits — a wooden chair at the foot of the bed — still holding her strange bundle to her chest. Whereas the old man seems to have grown lively, skipping about, running his fingers along the overlaps of paper like the feathers of a swan that might take flight. She bites her nail; flicks a white half-moon to the floor. When the burden becomes too much she holds it up, an offering. He pauses; takes it from her. Unwrapped, it is a book, a hefty thing with a black leather cover and gold letters indented so deep they catch the bit of sunlight finding its way in through the window to watch.” Excerpt from the book

Some readers might find the annotations and footnotes in the book (which Gilligan meticulously includes in her writing) to be tedious and distracting; however, there is something undoubtedly touching and deeply personal about them in that they help define the socio-religious struggles undertaken by the book’s previous owner. Early in the novel we are told that Noah, an amateur magician, woos Aisling by “magically” slipping origami swans into her pocket. Yet in spite of its surface sweetness there is something disturbing about this overarching motif, since all of the novel’s major characters are faced with crises in their lives that require them to metaphorically sing swan songs of the soul that underscore their inherent loneliness and displacement.

Perusing a novel about Jewish lives that does not reflect too heavily on the atrocities of the Holocaust is a rather unique experience; indeed, the only time that Ireland is bombed within the precincts of the book is explained away by the Germans as a regrettable mistake. One does not get to see Israel either since the book’s major focus is on the tiny Jewish diaspora based in Ireland, though virtually all the major Jewish characters periodically yearn to be elsewhere. Yet when one penetrates the surface of Gilligan’s writing one finds that what ties people together more closely than religion or race is the ability to recount tales, to spin yarns, to tell stories, or — in the case of the mute Shem — to write them. At his funeral, Moshe’s family and friends honour him by means of storytelling, and Ruth is generally so impressed by Niamh’s tales that years later she repeats those myths and legends when helping women during childbirth. Alf uses Shem as a scribe and Aisling becomes as obsessed with the manuscript she has been given as she once was with Noah.

Perhaps the most sincere compliment one can give Gilligan’s text is that it consistently sustains one’s interest in a manner similar to that of the excellent storytellers whom she periodically portrays over the course of the novel. It is this particular factor that unites cultures as diverse, and sometimes as disparate, as the Irish and the Jewish — and Gilligan takes pains to prove that stories about universal human emotions such as love transcend all manner of cultural differences. While this sentiment compels the reader to view her text in a rather idealistic light, it nonetheless appears to be the main message one takes away from Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, that humanity is invariably linked by invisible but strong chains of narrative.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
By Ruth Gilligan
Atlantic Books, UK
ISBN: 978-1782398561

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 20th, 2016