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Book Reviews Review: Alison Pick’s Strangers with the Same Dream explores the kibbutz movement of the 1920s

Alison Pick, who discovered and embraced her hidden patrilineal Judaism later in life, continues with the theme of ‘bad blood’ in Strangers With the Same Dream, a tale of a group of Zionist pioneers from the perspectives of three characters.

Emma-Lee Photography

Title
Strangers with the Same Dream
Author
Alison Pick
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
368
Price
$32.95

In her 2014 memoir, Between Gods, about her discovery and subsequent embrace of her hidden patrilineal Judaism, Alison Pick posited that "bad blood" from her family's persecution in the Holocaust might, through a kind of genetic memory, be responsible for her present-day struggles with depression.

It's a notion she's parlayed into her first novel since the Man Booker Prize-nominated, Holocaust-themed Far to Go. Blood, bad and otherwise, is omnipresent in Strangers with the Same Dream, which tells the tale of a group of Zionist pioneers in the nascent kibbutz movement of the 1920s from the kaleidoscopic perspectives of three characters: idealistic, 18-year-old Ida; the group's volatile leader, David; and his beleaguered wife, Hannah.

Bad blood accounts for why Ida has come in pursuit of Eretz Yisrael's promise of a collectivist, secular social utopia, her merchant father having been murdered in a pogrom back home in Kiev after the death of a Christian child was blamed on Jews.

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For his part, David has come to the new kibbutz not as a promotion but as an exile – something related to the death of a young Arab girl at Kinneret, the settlement he helped establish a decade ago. The "accident," as David refers to it, has resulted in a blood feud that local Arab tenant farmers – already resentful of their imminent expulsion from the land David's group plans to occupy – have signalled will not be easily escaped.

Blood is also present literally in the births, miscarriages, deaths and accidents that seem to plague the halutzim 's inexperienced attempts at community building. That more is yet to come is made clear by the book's occasional narrator, a ghost who declares on the first page that her death was not the suicide it was made out to be.

While dead characters have respectable fictional precedents – Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones among them – the execution here is mannered, clunky and freighted with a foreboding so heavy it verges on the comic: "Far in the future lies the terrible bloom of what we planted. It is your bloom now. The future is a tangle I prefer not to visit." The intrusions are kept minimal, although they irritate for that very reason. Our ghost (whose identity is revealed early on) has a habit of popping up the minute we've forgotten her. And though she's ostensibly there for redemptive purposes ("you are my own chosen people"), she struck me as transparently strategic: Pick's characters are unreliable witnesses, so the truth about her death needs to come from a neutral source.

The first section suffers from a fair amount of handholding and exposition ("A thousand stars sparkling in welcome. Or so it seemed to those who wanted to see it that way"). This tapers off in the second (David's) section, thankfully, and things start to get interesting.

Pick is particularly artful at exploiting the inevitable collision between human ideals and human nature. When Ida hides the heirloom candlesticks she knows should be surrendered and sold for the group's benefit, she unwittingly sets in motion a terrible tragedy. Meanwhile, David's collectivist ideals have gradually succumbed to his cravings for authority and sex (observing his latest object of desire, "something clenched in his gut, a longing that was almost intolerable, a rage at his impotence to make her his own"). He rationalizes his philandering to a young halutz as a means of unshackling women from the monogamy that distracts them from "creative, meaningful work" (which turns out to be laundry and dishes).

It is Hannah, however, who experiences the disconnect most profoundly. Not only must she hand over newborn Ruth to other women on the grounds that "biology engenders bias," her pregnancies themselves must be "taken to the group."

Pick uses the Rashomon effect nicely, too, introducing shifts into the narrative with each character's retelling of it. Some of these are so subtle as to be easily missed. Others are more discombobulating. When David goes to talk to Hannah about their daughter Ruth's infected leg, mysteriously cut after a visit to the Arab village, he finds her quietly reading a play by David Pinsky (presumably the Yiddish writer David Pinski). When the scene is replayed from Hannah's perspective, David is carrying the play, something she reacts to with irritation – how has he found time to read? Ruth's rotting, gangrenous leg – the result of her parents' and the community's bizarre denial, and failure to take even the simplest measures to deal with it at the beginning – becomes, at the same time, a potent symbol for the situation as a whole.

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The novel's "alternative facts" are made all the more intriguing for being delivered in the third person rather than the first. Pick seems to suggest, not just that memory and perception are imperfect, but that truth isn't always achievable. It's a careful dance, mindful of current sensibilities, so it perhaps shouldn't surprise that even geography is apportioned a share of the responsibility for what's to come: "The casualties piled up as though part of some predestined plans; as though the land itself was not able to abide peace."

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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