Shortly after Tam, a successful broadcaster and mother still in her thirties, dies of cancer, it becomes apparent to her sister, Eve, that she took a secret to the grave: a secret she seems to want Eve to puzzle out. Woven through with themes of love, ambition and betrayal, Nessa Rapoport’s Toronto-set second novel, Evening (her first, Preparing for Sabbath, was shortlisted for the Books in Canada First Novel Award), unfolds over the six days during which Eve and her family sit shiva. The Toronto-born Rapoport is also the author of a memoir, House on the River, and a collection of prose poems, A Woman’s Book of Grieving. She spoke to The Globe and Mail from New York, where she has lived for many decades with her artist-husband, Tobi Kahn.
Can you talk about the decision to set this novel over a shiva, and also about its spark – did the story flow to or from that compressed frame? What about the ritual served you from a narrative standpoint?
The first chapter of this novel came to me unexpectedly. Eve, the narrator – struggling with ambition and love, funny and full of contradictions – is sitting in the living room of her childhood home in Toronto. It is the morning of the funeral of her older sister, Tam, a famous Canadian TV journalist, devotedly married, who has died in her thirties, far too young.
Shiva is an organic time frame, allowing me to set the story within the seven days of mourning. But shiva also gave me its practice, when people one knows well or scarcely knows come to the house of those who are grieving to offer consolation. Often, they tell startling stories, of the dead person, of the past.
I knew that Eve and Tam argued so intensely before Tam died that they stopped speaking. And I knew that after the funeral, Eve discovered a secret about Tam, a secret that changes the way Eve sees her sister and her own future.
Then I had to figure out what they were fighting about and how Eve finds out what she needs to know.
The death of someone with whom one has unresolved issues is uniquely torturous, especially when, as in this case, there’s still a fundamental love there …
What I’ve learned is that a relationship continues – and grows – after someone has left the world, even if there was a raw edge to the loss, of what was unresolved or could not be. Because we are always changing, and the way we tell our story to ourselves changes with us.
We can grow more understanding of the cost of such relationships. Or more compassionate. Or both, at once.
The frayed fabric can be repaired, even if they are no longer here. Or we can come to peace in ways we couldn’t when they were alive. Or we see that they live in us – sometimes hilariously.
Loss and grief have figured prominently in your work before, most directly in A Woman’s Book of Grieving. Why do you think you keep returning to it?
In my late thirties, I had been to one funeral. Suddenly, I was booking flights from New York City to Toronto, as my grandmother, my uncle, and others I loved left the world.
The books I read were too sugary, except for C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, whose opening line is, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
I wanted to write a book whose premise was, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like rage.”
I am not at all of the “silver lining” school of suffering. But loss is our lot. I hoped to alchemize my grief into something useful.
And I keep returning to it because it keeps returning to me, as it does to all mortals.
Given the novel’s intimate setting and almost universal themes – sibling tension, passion versus career/intellectualism, generational breaks and connections – I’m curious why you decided to set it in the early ’90s …
I’d love to report that the 1990s are one of my favorite periods. But Evening is set in the ’90s because I began it in 1990. The title of the novel and the first chapter were an effortless gift; Evening was supposed to be my easy book.
It turns out I was not in charge. Instead, I published two other books while I was writing this one – the Grieving book and House on the River, a memoir of a pilgrimage houseboat trip I took with three generations of my family to return to the summer landscapes of our childhood in the Kawarthas.
But I never stopped writing Evening.
So you weren’t just trying to avoid the internet! Thirty years is a long time in the writing – did your approach to the novel, to your characters, change much over that time?
All the while, through many changes in my own life, I was under the spell of these two sisters. Over the years, I kept testing myself, but they were as compelling and idiosyncratic as when I first encountered them!
During the shiva, Eve almost immediately becomes preoccupied arranging a tryst with a flame from her youth. Because it feels verboten, that commingling of grief and lust gives the novel some of its lift. But is it verboten? Are those feelings closer in source than we’d like to think?
The feelings elicited by grief are raw, elemental – but sometimes awakening. The world is stripped of the defenses that carry us through our days, that keep us, as George Eliot says, “well wadded with stupidity.”
We can see what matters – but also have a clarity of unwavering conviction that is the reason people in mourning are advised to make no major decisions.
Eve does not follow that advice.
Shiva also means a return to one’s family of origin, to the stereotypes about one another that funerals, and weddings, seem to elicit. Eve cannot bear the way she is typecast when she goes home, but also, of course, provokes it and feels impelled to act.
Eve feels she has to go to New York to break free of the shackles of Canada, which represents, for her, something staid and provincial. And yet when she returns to Toronto, to her family home, she finds it exerts a powerful pull. As someone who took a similar trajectory, can you talk about that conflict?
My answer falls under a category I invoke daily: “the further humbling of Nessa Rapoport.”
The Toronto in which I came of age is nothing like the city today. When I was young, I wanted a huge, passionate life; I was ardent and hungry for the largest feelings. I did not have a Toronto temperament! New York City drew people just like me.
I was also born in the wrong geography. I love the light, and radiant skies, and, except for skating, have never done a winter sport in my life. New York is hardly Mediterranean, but its winters are easier.
And the city has kept its promise to me. From the start, it made possible a unique anonymity, alongside the capacity to have hyphenated identities that are not pitted against one another: Writer, working woman, wife, mother, feminist, Jew: New York has accommodated all of them.
There are New Yorkers born everywhere; I’m one.
But now it’s 2020, and guess which country seems to embody, imperfectly like all countries, a kind of civility and humanity that could not be more of a contrast with today’s United States? I am fascinated by Canada and the way it actualizes such a different vision of citizenship and community. And its hard-won summers are so sweet.
My mother, my sister, and lots of family live in Toronto, as well as irreplaceable childhood friends. As soon the plague lifts, I’ll be back.
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