Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ambitious 'Cure For Grief' a shining debut

A work of great ambition, The Cure For Grief (Scribner, 288 ages, $24) is a shining debut from writer Nellie Hermann. The novel begins with the chance discovery of a gun by the protagonist Ruby Bronstein. Ruby, the youngest of the Bronsteins, must share the thrill and horror of landing upon a weapon with her three elder brothers, Nathan, Aaron and Abe. This opening sequence is a gentle initiation into the bonds that tie the Bronsteins and also the fear and loathing that the family patriarch holds for weapons of any sort.

Ruby's father is a Holocaust survivor who maintains incomprehensible spells of silence and holds steadfast to his Jewish identity. As Ruby slips into adolescence, tragedies begin to strike the family. Both her father and Nathan, to whom Ruby is especially close, die, and Abe, always distant, gradually slips into madness. The slide from happiness to sadness to rage is evoked with restrained passion, not just in Ruby's response to the crumbling family around her, but also in Hermann's portrayal of it.

With the deaths in the family chasing her like friendly ghosts, Ruby's life acquires an altogether new dimension in that she is forced to constantly watch her place through a hitherto absent third eye. Whether it is attending kerem (Jewish camp) or recounting her traumas to potential love interests, or even just commenting on the banal idiocy of network TV, an unbreakable cycle of depressed homogeneity stalks Ruby -- which is why even though there is a tendency to repeat what the reader will get tired of acknowledging, the book never falls into dull territory.

The similar nature of tragedies (both father and Nathan die of brain tumors) and the springing of sudden madness (Abe's violent revolts are blameless forays into making sense of a senseless world) lend counterweight to the repetitiveness. One wonders if Hermann meant these as elliptical references to the destructiveness of the Holocaust.

The Cure for Grief is fine writing. In a touching scene, a disturbed Ruby is comforted by Aaron, his pale words bubbling into nothingness. The reader is brought to the point of lashing out on Ruby's part, which she does, and this realization, this stage-setting -- more than anything else -- is the mark of a great writer.


This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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