Ian Colford’s Reviews > The Mystics of Mile End
The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel
Read in February 2016
3 of 5 stars
Sigal Samuel’s novel The Mystics of Mile End is an impressively confident debut work of fiction that tells the story of the Meyer family of Mile End (a neighbourhood in Montreal). David, the father of Lev and Samara, is a lapsed Orthodox Jew and professor of Jewish Mysticism. His estrangement from the Orthodox faith was triggered in part by the sudden and tragic death of his wife, who was hit by a car, and his firm disavowal of organized religion is a driving force in his life, one that he has imposed on his children. That is why Lev and Samara keep their interest in Judaism to themselves. Lev, a science geek grounded in the real world, is also attracted to religion, and Samara, outwardly an unexceptional young teenager, is secretly studying for her Bat Mitzvah with a neighbor who is a Holocaust survivor and an expert in Jewish history and folklore. The novel’s four-part structure enables the reader to become familiar with the three main characters: Lev, David, and Samara each narrate their own sections while the final section is told from multiple points of view. As time passes the three Meyers are pulled in directions that don’t easily mesh. David has a heart attack and becomes convinced that God is communicating through the murmur that his heart emits; Lev, the budding scientist, paradoxically immerses himself in Orthodox faith and practice; Samara struggles with a distant relationship with her father and her own homosexuality. Central to the concerns of all three is the mythical Tree of Knowledge, which a deranged neighbour, Katz, is reconstructing in his front yard out of household trash and junk. Samuel tells her story with verve and energy, making liberal use of her obvious mastery of Jewish mysticism. The characters are sympathetic. We share their confusion in the face of life-altering choices and are drawn irresistibly into the distinct world that each inhabits. The novel maintains an even keel through the first three sections as we grow to care about the Meyers and their struggles to understand one another and make peace with their Jewish heritage. In the overwrought fourth part Samara’s obsession with the Tree of Knowledge crosses a line and her behaviour becomes erratic. The reader may be surprised to learn that the very act of pursuing certain lines of knowledge can place characters in actual physical peril, and as the novel gallops toward its conclusion everyone’s efforts are focused on saving Samara from a life-threatening situation. The final scene, which employs elements that would be more at home in a gothic potboiler, strains credibility and is not particularly satisfying. Still, Sigal Samuel has written an absorbing and sophisticated first novel that provides the reader with a fascinating glimpse into an arcane world that many of us will never experience first-hand.