There’s quite a lot packed into this novel about twenty-five year old Sarah Levine in 1982. While at times Tregebov’s writing dips into the obvious and somewhat heavy-handed, overall I thought this was an excellent novel.The first half of the book takes place in Toronto where Sarah works a series of dead-end jobs and refuses to take things further with her boyfriend, Michael. She likes her job at a local gardening centre and is interested in landscape architecture but is stunted somehow by her inability to finish university or push herself for something more. She certainly isn’t helped by anybody around her. One sister is drowning under the weight of depression while another seems angry at everything, Sarah most of all.
When the opportunity arises for Sarah to join Michael while he works in Paris for a few months, she decides to take it. While slightly adrift initially, she finds it to be an opportunity to reinvent herself. To try on a new character, a new life. Almost immediately though, she spots the words, “Death to Jews” on the wall of the Metro station near their apartment. And always in the background is the conflict in the Middle East, the increasing violence between Israel and Palestine. A theme throughout the book is this sense of belonging. Belonging to place, to history, to family.
Tregebov plays with language a lot in several interesting ways. There are the common and dissimilar ways of French and English, the roots and origins of words and plant names, things that Sarah dwells on privately. There is the sense of accounting, something gained only when something else is lost. The weight of numbers, representing the monumental life lost in the Holocaust and the ways that loss presents itself in subsequent generations. A lot of these themes are repeated a bit too much, so that the reader begins to feel rather brow-beaten. But it also shows Sarah’s perspective well, her obsessiveness and her inability to come down on either side of a question.
Interspersed amongst Sarah’s story are short, first-person perspectives from someone named Laila. As Laila’s story (and her connection to Sarah) is revealed, it became clear that here Tregebov was attempting to show the many sides of a single story. Personally, I felt like this was both unnecessary and not entirely effectual. The story that Laila eludes to (and I don’t want to give too much away) is a large and important one and I think skimming over it doesn’t work. Laila’s stories could have been left out entirely and the book would have been the same.
On a personal note, I almost quit this book before I finished the first section. I was enjoying the writing but one of the storylines that is focused on quite heavily here is that Sarah’s sister Rose is dealing with the stillbirth of her baby and Sarah is questioning the abortion she had as a teenager. Everyone around both of these women is so awful and unfeeling. Sarah’s other sister complains that Rose is note yet over “it”. It, in this case, being the death of a baby. Sarah is sympathetic to her sister but doesn’t know what to do when they are separated by geography. Both the stillbirth and the abortion are described in fairly detailed terms and it all made me so angry and sad, and yet grateful that my own experience of miscarriage has been met with so much more sympathy. It was hard for me to read though and I was glad when the book left much of it behind and moved on to Paris. However, as much as I ended up enjoying Rue des Rosiers I probably won’t attend Tregebov’s session at the Festival this summer.
Rhea Tregebov will be one of the featured authors at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts this summer and I read Rue des Rosiers as part of my Writers Fest 2019 challenge.)