Who By Fire, by Diana Spechler, is a moving novel about a dysfunctional family, a secular Jewish family, a family trying to recover from the loss of Alena, the youngest child, who was kidnapped when she was six years old. They have not been able to move forward.
The Kellermans are still in a state of limbo, thirteen years after Alena’s kidnapping. Their alternating stories are told in the first person narratives, and this works efficiently and nicely within the novel’s structure. The family is trying to deal with their impaired emotions. Bits (Beatrice) is the oldest daughter, while Ash/Asher is the son (middle child), and Ellie is their mother. Their lives still revolve around the loss of Alena, and Who By Fire demonstrates how each family member tries to find a connection to fill the void. Their resulting actions are fanatical, and often feel as if they are swimming against the current of life in the family tapestry. Their despair is a prevalent force behind their decisions, decisions that are not always good choices.
Bits exhibits damaging behavior with her promiscuity, sleeping with total strangers. She is aware of her behavior, and doesn’t seem to want or be able to control it. She is cognizant that her relationships are fleeting. Being the older sister, she also feels a responsibility to try to salvage and rescue her brother from the grips of a yeshiva in Israel, so he can return home and attend a funeral for Alena, whose remains have been discovered. How she manages to travel to Israel is another issue, and the dynamics and justification behind it are somewhat comical, yet not morally sound. She is self-absorbed and she is on the verge of emotional ruination, due to the guilt she feels.
Ash/Asher has decided to alienate himself from Bits and his mother, by fleeing (literally) to Israel, in order to try to escape the blame he feels for Alena’s kidnapping. He is seeking forgiveness within Orthodox Judaism, and tries to find release within a yeshiva compound, and within the walls of Jerusalem. He meets a quirky young woman, who seems to have a desire for him. His concentration is often diminished, and his mind wanders regarding women and sexuality. His obsessive religious behavior creates more friction and turmoil in his life, and most of it is unexpected and self-inflicted. His feelings of self-absorption and guilt are ever present, looming ominously and constantly surrounding him.
Ellie, the mother is a character in herself, and one in which Spechler doesn’t delve as deeply into as she does with Bits and Ash. She has become the paranoid mother, always wanting to know where her adult children are, and wanting them close by. She will do anything to protect her children. She meets up with a man who she hires to find Ash and bring him back home, because of her thoughts on yeshiva life, and how she feels it is a cultist environment. She immediately seeks comfort from the man, to replace the years she has spent isolated and alone.
Judaism and affiliation is a strong theme, and we see how a secular family reacts to one member becoming a Ba’al Teshuva (BT). Bits and Ellie are judgmental in their negative response to Ash’s lifestyle. Ash is just as judgmental regarding his sister and mother, and judgmental regarding other Jewish sects. He seemingly thrives in his new and rigid environment, and can’t see beyond the borders. We are given snippets of the yeshiva life, the mores, rules and regulations of the Orthodox culture.
Who By Fire is a book with an excellent focus on familial dysfunction, love and loss, and manipulation. It brings to the forefront the lack of honesty each character has within the family unit…each one lying to the other for their own gratification, and each one acting deceitfully as a means to an end. They often delude themselves into thinking they are doing it to protect the other family members. The result isn’t always what they expect it to be. Bits seemingly is trying to rescue Ash, but is she really trying to rescue herself from her self-hate and guilt? Ash is trying to rescue and forgive himself through redemption from guilt, by escaping to the yeshiva, is it effective? Ellie is trying to rescue her children through her manipulations, does she lose herself in the process? From Boston to Israel, and back, the characters are in a state of continual flux, fanatically and unknowingly trying to seek their own identity, their own sense of self, their own resolution to their family history.
Spechler brings us a story of dysfunction and deliverance. She has weaved a story with more than one narrator, multiple characters and a story filled with multi-layers, each layer of the tapestry important to the whole. Bits, Ash/Asher and Ellie are controlled by the past, and time has stood still. In their quest to save each other from their bondage to the past, they have strained their familial relationships even further, through their lack of communication.
For a first book, I found Who By Fire to be extremely well-written, with amazingly vivid-word images, that hold the reader’s interest. The issues of family dynamics that Spechler delves into are not unique or new ones, but ones that are found in most families, although the Kellermans are an extreme example, due to the kidnapping. Diana Spechler’s use of narration is what held my interest, and I found the alternation of the characters to be extremely effective. She gives the reader much to ponder, within the pages. Who By Fire is a book I highly recommend, not only to the Jewish community (no matter the affiliation), but also to any person who is interested in the subject of family dynamics, and the threads that bind their familial tapestries together.
April 24, 2013 – 14 Iyyar, 5773