‘The Mystics of Mile End’ by Sigal Samuel

Mystics coverReviewed by Rachel Carlson 

Sigal Samuel’s debut novel follows a string of theatrical, literary, and journalistic successes. Samuel has written and directed six plays with works winning the Solo Collective Theatres’ Emerging Playwrights’ Competition and The Cultch’s Young Playwrights’ Competition. Her articles, reviews, and works of fiction have appeared in Prairie Fire, Grain, and on BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast. In addition, this novel is about to appear with William Morrow in the US.

In Mile End, Samuel tracks the tragic trajectory of a family fractured by untimely death. After their mother, Miriam, dies in a random accident, siblings Lev and Samara Meyer struggle to cope, while their father, David Meyer, retreats into academia. David throws himself into his work as a faithless university professor with expertise in Jewish mysticism. The children are often alone, depending on one another for life’s daily necessities. Samara, the eldest child, immerses herself in Judaism as her mother once did. Diligently, she prepares for her bat mitzvah in defiance of her father who says prayer is “magical thinking.” Lev tries his best to connect with his emotionally distant and often absent father, while guarding his sister’s secrets and his own curiosity and attachment to faith.

Both children search for comfort and connection in the community that surrounds them. Set in Montreal’s Mile End, a neighbourhood of young hipsters and Hasidic Jews, Samara and Lev are surrounded by the markers of Jewish faith. Samara secretly seeks the Judaic teachings of their next-door neighbour, Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman. Lev seeks the comfort of his neighbours’ kitchen where Chaim’s wife bakes ruggelach while muttering mathematical proofs. Lev is also drawn to the eccentric Mr. Katz who crafts a Tree of Life from paint and paper tubes and dental floss hammocks for fruit. Lemons swing from the tree in his yard before they rot in the sun. Mr. Katz is not a popular neighbour.

Samara, Lev, and David each narrate their own chapter as they search for meaning above all else. Each character searches for signs to guide them. Lev attempts to read his father’s behaviour for the signposts of emotional connection, but he’s confused by the taboo topics and language that have arisen since his mother’s death. He can’t find the magic combination of words or gestures to inspire his father’s joy or love. It is in friendship that Lev finds solace and an unlikely complement to his growing religious faith.

Lev’s best friend, Alex, places all his faith in science and the possibility of communicating with other life in the universe. In the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the simple practices of binary coding and scientific method, Alex anchors himself to a seemingly pragmatic worldview. Yet Mile End places the scientific explanation of the universe on par with the search for meaning in religion: “There was a bloodhound devotion to the way he pursued his science… you had the impression that he looked skyward not just for pulsars and quasars but for emotional companionship and spiritual solace.”

Lev, Alex, and Samara all seek a similar solace. Even their personal libraries—a large and quasi-sacred presence in the narrative—alternate religious and scientific texts.

David’s chapter leaps into the future to open with a life-threatening heart attack. Faced with his own mortality, David looks back on his wife’s death to revisit the signs of a meaningless universe:

And that is why, when Miriam left the house the next day and went to the grocery store to buy saltines, fucking saltines, and got hit by a car and died, a part of me was horrified but a part of me was vindicated, was triumphant, and that was the part of me that felt like screaming from the rooftops: Yes! Yes! That is how meaningless life can be!

David wants to reconnect with his family, but he doesn’t know how. Old habits of silence and distance persist, and his heart begins to beat an ominous rhythm. The murmuring of his heart begins to whisper mystic messages that lead David to delve deeply into his own studies of Jewish Kabbalah.

Samara’s chapter also opens following her father’s death. Like her father, Samara copes with her grief by retreating from the ones she loves. She pushes her girlfriend, Jenny, and her brother away. She finds her father’s manuscript about the Tree of Life and decides to make a mystical ascent. Samara begins searching for the signs to guide her to mystic understanding and wisdom. The book’s description of her erratic behaviour, her mystic fervour, begins to look like the manic behaviour of their neighbour, Mr. Katz. Samara’s aesthetic journey begins to look like mental illness.

Silence is both a poison and a panacea for the characters of Mile End. After their mother’s death a chasm of silence yawns between them:

She died that summer and a yeasty silence filled the house and rose, inch by inch, until it filled the space between us.” Silence is the space between Samara and her father that embodies the ineffable resentment that grows between them. They develop an unplanned practice of silence: “And so I added the smile to the litany of things we did not talk about, which by this point included but was not limited to: Jenny, music, bicycles, my health, intellectual elitism, Kraft Dinner, Zionism, her mother, bat mitzvahs…

Yet, her father’s silence also embodies his unuttered acceptance of Samara’s sexuality. Her love for Jenny can’t be hidden in the safety of their quietude. Silence is also the vehicle for meaning and the mystical presence of God or the universe. Samara reads silence, delving its mysteries:

She would sit there, on the floor of her bedroom, dinging for hours on end, as if all the secrets of the universe were audible in the rest between one note and the next. As she grew older she got less obsessive about the triangle, but not about listening in that strange way. When she was thirteen, I would find her sitting with the telephone pressed to her ear, saying nothing… the next day, she’d be crouching in front of the dishwasher, attending to its chaotic rumblings…

Even her faithless father listens to the silences between his heartbeats, waiting for them to divulge purpose and meaning. As readers, we are invited to consider the silences between letters on a page, between musical notes, and between people we love. Silence both cleaves and sutures in Mile End. It can be misread and transformed into a lifetime of painful distance, or it can be translated into unspoken mercy.

The Mystics of Mile End explores mysticism as an everyday practice that infiltrates science, secularism, religion, grief, joy, mathematics, linguistics, and intellectualism. Mysticism is the default approach to life in Mile End, rather than a fringe phenomenon. Mysticism is the magic that holds this thought-provoking story together—it’s the paradoxical organizing principle that generates interest and makes the narrative shine. It is no small achievement that Samuel makes mysticism touchable.

Freehand | 296 pages | $21.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554812530

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