Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth, Edeet Ravel's first book of adult fiction since her much-praised Tel Aviv Trilogy, is a very fine and moving novel. Perhaps it is strange to speak of pleasure when reviewing a book about the children of Holocaust survivors. Yet Ravel covers this territory in such a nuanced, compassionate, insightful and gently humorous way that this novel, along with the inevitable underlying pain, provides exactly that.
- Your Sad Eyes and Unforgettable Mouth, by Edeet Ravel, Viking Canada, 274 pages, $32
The novel is told in the first person by Maya, a 52-year-old Montrealer looking back on a crucial period of her life, her high school years, which was the first time she had friends. Maya is a tall, intellectual girl with a sense of humour and a sense of self. Not the least of her strengths is her ability to erect boundaries between herself and her well-meaning but suffocatingly intrusive mother. At one point, Maya rams her desk against her bedroom door to keep her mother out both physically and psychologically. Fortunately for her, her mother accepts this gesture, and soon afterward begins respecting the meaning of a closed door (no desk needed).
This ability to "close the door" on her mother and, by extension, on her mother's hellish past, is what buffers Maya to some degree from the horrors of the Holocaust. But, of course, she is not unscathed. None of the characters in this novel is. Not Rosie, Maya's best friend, or Patrick, or Anthony, the other young main characters, all of whom are, like Maya, children of survivors. And, of course, all the parents are, inevitably, profoundly damaged people. Conveyed with particular poignancy is Rosie's father, the wonderful but shattered Mr. Michaeli.
Ravel does an excellent job of bringing all these characters to life, making us care about them, even ache for them. This is a sign of her great skill, as is the complexity and depth of her characters. There are no stereotypes here. Maya, for instance, in addition to being the daughter of a survivor, is a young lesbian struggling with the emerging awareness that she is sexually different from those around her. Her family is not stereotypical, either. Instead of living with a mother and father, she lives with a mother and grandmother, who together constitute a matriarchal world for Maya that models for her the power and enduring strength of women.
Another source of pleasure is Ravel's vivid, accurate description of the high school social scene, and also of Montreal. For current or former Montrealers, there is the added treat here of recognizing familiar places, neighbourhoods, bus routes and even schools.
There are, however, a few flaws. Toward the end, Ravel has Maya, when thinking about Anthony, switch to the second person ("You ..."), which is quite jarring. Also, the 10-page italicized epilogue, Eikha (in English, Lamentations) does not add to the novel; rather, it detracts. Last, this novel deserves a stronger title. However, these are minor quibbles in what is over all a very impressive work.
This is also an important book to be publishing now, at a time when in some circles, Holocaust denial continues to exist and, simultaneously, Holocaust survivors are aging and dying off. It is now their children who must continue to tell this tale. Not that Your Sad Eyes is just about the Holocaust. It is a story about suffering, and survival, and parents and their children, and as such is accessible to readers of all backgrounds.
Ravel does not show directly the horrors of the Holocaust: There are no descriptions of what happened "there" (as the survivors refer to the Europe of the time). Instead, the horrors are communicated in shadows through the emotional wreckage of the characters.
But what shines through this wonderful novel is not the wreckage, but the incredibly impressive, one might even say heroic, impetus toward life on the part of both the survivors and their children. Maya's mother, despite the brutality and inhumanity she has experienced, finds within herself the capacity to remain human and to love her daughter unconditionally, and this is perhaps her greatest triumph. Similarly, Maya strives for life, and in her adolescence is like a sapling reaching out for light.
In fact, all the characters (in Anthony's words) "long for love and light." They are deeply burdened, but beautiful. Wounded, but wonderful. And at the end of this heartbreaking but funny, readable book, what remains with you as much as the horror and grief is the almost infinite human capacity for recovery, resilience, hope and beauty. A true testament not only to the survivors of the Holocaust and their children, but to Edeet Ravel's talent.
Nora Gold's first book, Marrow: And Other Stories, won the Louis Lockshin Prize, and recently she completed her first novel, Exile, about anti-Semitism in academe. Like Ravel's characters here, Gold grew up in Montreal and attended the same high school (St. George's) as Patrick.