|QUILL & QUIRE - DECEMBER 2013
Lily Poritz Miller; $19.95 paper 978-1-92751-316-3, 216 pp., 6x9,
Sumach Press, Nov.
Four years after her critically praised debut, In a Pale Blue Light, Lily
Poritz Miller returns with a second instalment in the lives of the Hoffman
family, first of Lithuania, then South Africa, now newly arrived in
America on the heels of the Second World War.
Widowed mother Sara and her children fetch up in a small New England
town inhabited by textile mills and a bossy uncle with a rags-to-riches
work ethic. Through the eyes of Sara, daughter Libka, and others, we’re
drawn into the family’s efforts to rekindle the middle-class security they
had in Cape Town, even amid the entrenched anti-Semitism that drove
them out. Sara takes a stab at opening a bakery, then has some success
with a laundromat. She tussles with Uncle Meyer over her son Beryl’s
future; will he learn a trade or spend years earning a college degree?
Libka, meanwhile, despite her headstrong and reclusive ways, falls prey to
a matchmaking scheme with Melvin Kaplan, a suitor attractive mainly for
his father’s thriving hardware business.
Miller builds a lively, gently humorous portrait of a loving but fractious
family grappling with a new world. Both Libka and her mother remain
attached to friends from South Africa, whose letters fill them with mixed
feelings about what they’ve lost and gained by emigrating. Libka babysits
for a prominent local family; one night she is sexually violated by the
father, who ensures her silence with a threat. The passage is finely tuned;
steeped in anticipatory dread, then heartbreak, as we watch the naïve
Libka snared in her attacker’s trap. Other plot threads emerge and
entwine, among them Libka’s plan to reunite with an old Cape Town
boyfriend in England.
With their engaging quirks and distinctly wrought personalities, these
characters convince. As storytelling, though, the book has a haphazard
quality. The overall structure and the accumulating, shifting points of view
have a random feel, while pivotal plot points seem dropped into the action
rather than arising organically out of a well-honed narrative, as they did
so effectively in Miller’s debut. The Newcomers remains a diverting read,
an old-fashioned tale of family and the challenges of immigrant life.
- Jim Bartley