On March 12, 2020, Rhea Tregebov’s Rue Des Rosiers was one of five books shortlisted for the 2020 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize of the BC and Yukon Book Prizes. Winners will be announced on September 19th at the Pan Pacific Hotel in downtown Vancouver – Ed.
Sarah Levine has difficulty making decisions. She carries with her a penny, and she uses it to choose between options, heads or tails, sometimes about trivial matters, sometimes about issues that are entirely serious. Her impulse to make choices in this arbitrary manner signals big problems. She’s deeply alienated, in ways that are sometimes reminiscent of protagonists from the decades-ago golden age of existential fiction, the angst-ridden anti-heroes one finds in works by writers like Sartre and Camus.
One of Rue Des Rosiers’s chief successes is the patient way it roots Sarah’s disturbed psychology in the world. Her paralysis is not just a given, not an expression of some particular existential sensitivity. Sarah’s problems have clear, concrete sources, including a moving story about the decision-making penny and how it came to be significant for her. Her malaise, a mean brew of indecisiveness and inability to commit to much of anything, especially some version of her self, in part grows out of her troubles with her sexuality as a confused teen and her intense relations with her two sisters. But the overriding source of her difficulties ties Sarah to history and also embeds her in contemporary politics. That source is the Holocaust.
Sarah’s parents were born in Canada, and within the family the Holocaust is a taboo subject, but as a Jewish girl growing up in Winnipeg she hears snippets of stories from relatives, friends, and the community at large. She remains ignorant of the historical details, but that very ignorance, the vagueness of the overwhelming horror that looms over her world, contributes to the nightmares that begin to visit her when she is just a child. Later, at university, she attempts to address her problems by taking a course on Holocaust history:
The destruction of the Jews of Europe, this is a story that she wanted to know, one that belonged to her. She wanted to have a way of framing herself, of claiming more than the four words: never forget, never again. More than faded waking nightmares. If she had facts, comprehension, maybe there would be something she could do with them (p. 23).
But she does not complete the course, and she drops out, remaining unframed. Her work is poorly paid and menial. She won’t commit to her boyfriend, Michael, finding herself unable even to spend an entire night with him, though he is nothing but kind and supportive. Increasingly there’s a distance between her and her family. When Sarah is fired, unjustly, from her job at a nursery, she has a fight with her radical-feminist sister Gail, who is angry at Sarah for not being angrier at men and not being more independent.
Sarah is smart and sympathetic, but the novel could risk its readers coming to feel about her the way Gail does — frustrated with her unwillingness to engage with life and to stand up for herself. Another strand of the story takes care of that problem.
Early in the novel, a different voice interrupts the third-person narration that’s focused through Sarah. A chapter of just a single, short paragraph — headed “Laila” — introduces us to a new, first-person narrator, whose story runs intermittently through the novel in interludes that never supplant Sarah’s tale, but which grow in significance.
Laila is a young woman struggling to survive in one of Paris’s notorious suburban slums. She is an Arab immigrant from an unspecified, troubled country in the Middle East, perhaps territory occupied by Israel. Soon after it begins, the novel’s structure strongly suggests that Laila and Sarah will meet, or at least that the two narrative lines will come together, and thus a kind of urgency and also foreboding is generated. That element of the novel, the expectation it creates, ensures that the reader won’t become frustrated with Sarah’s stasis. She’s moving toward something, perhaps a collision, and whatever it is, there are tremendous forces behind it.
That foreboding intensifies when we see that Laila’s despair, her fear, her resentment of a world that so consistently brutalizes her, find a concrete expression in her antisemitism. It intensifies again when Sarah accepts an invitation from Michael and heads to Paris.
What Tregebov is attempting here is highly ambitious. The forces at play are geopolitical, involving brutal cultural animosities but also conflicts over class and gender, issues that bedevil us in many ways. In the literary world, one of the expressions of those issues is our trouble with the problem of appropriation, and Laila is a brave literary creation in that context. Her character is anything but reductive, and in a sense she and Sarah are involved in the same struggle, which is to assert a personhood that refuses to accept certain limiting definitions, whether offered by exploitive, racist Parisian employers of immigrant labour or political movements that want to reduce individuals to positions in a struggle.
Rue Des Rosiers is Tregebov’s second novel, but she is also a poet of considerable accomplishment. Her poet’s skill with language is evident in her handling of the two distinct stories here, and the novel is a master-class in the intelligent handling of voice. The third person narrator who tells Sarah’s story is spare and elegantly restrained, allowing the feeling of psychological and political urgency to develop in a way that’s entirely unforced. In contrast, Laila’s present-tense interludes are more impressionistic, capturing the emotional and also very physical stress she’s living under.
The novel’s resolution accepts the challenge it has set for itself. It tells a story that is honest about the inescapability of the world’s crushing pressures without giving up on individuals. What happens to Sarah and Laila is deeply moving and thought-provoking. Rue Des Rosiers is a novel that will stay with readers for a long time.
Sadly, the publisher of Rue Des Rosiers, Coteau Books, succumbed to the economic and technological forces that are disrupting the Canadian book world and declared bankruptcy last winter. The novel is no longer being distributed, at least not conventionally. Readers should nevertheless seek it out. Bookstores might respond to requests by contacting the author directly. Libraries may do the same. Tregebov’s work richly deserves a wide audience.
Editor’s note: Rue Des Rosiers is now available from Wolsak and Wynn (Hamilton, ON).