Fiction / Step into the labyrinth
In his mysterious and haunting third novel, Frederick Reiken interweaves the lives of seemingly perfect strangers
Day for Night
by Frederick Reiken. Little, Brown, 323 pages, $25
Picture a prism. Light bends from angle to hidden corner through the center and back again, creating a rainbow of refracting rays with no starting point, and no end. Now imagine a story structured this way, in which one character's life bends toward another's; their pasts overlap or their futures are headed for collision, the intersecting moments part of something bigger than the two of them alone. This is akin to what Frederick Reiken masterfully creates in his third novel, "Day for Night," in which he strings together 10 vignettes, each told from the perspective of a different character, illuminating from one chapter to the next how powerfully the lives of perfect strangers can be connected.
While nearly every chapter is strong enough to stand on its own as a short story, it is the ways these tales are interwoven that packs the book with its ultimate punch. The localized suspense within each world always has implications for the larger story being told.
As we navigate through characters' relationships and experiences, Reiken adeptly takes us around the world - from Florida and Utah to Eastern Europe and the Negev - and to various points in time, via poignant flashbacks.
Beverly Rabinowitz, a divorced mother of two, is the center around which the book's interconnecting stories revolve. In 1939, at the age of 5, she and her parents fled their small village outside Warsaw, ending up in Lithuania, where mother and daughter had to part ways with the father, who promised to catch up with them shortly. Beverly and her mother continued to the United States and never saw her father again. All evidence points to his murder by the Nazis - but the story of two men who escaped from the slaughter has allowed her to hold on to hope of his survival. It is this longing for Beverly's lost father that propels the novel forward, as various characters, often without even realizing it, help bring her closer to the truth she has been searching for nearly her entire life.
We first meet Beverly in her late 40s, while she is visiting the west coast of Florida with her boyfriend David, a marine biologist, and his son Jordan, 13,whom they are taking snorkeling in a river filled with manatees. Their river guide is Tim, a 20-something in love with his bandmate Dee, whose "history of childhood trauma," as she puts it, continues to seep into her dreams. And so, as we move from one character to the next, the thread of Reiken's tale begins to unspool. Certain characters' purpose in the story or connection to Beverly is not always readily apparent, and Reiken can at times veer off into seemingly unrelated tangents and anecdotes, but he is a storyteller to be trusted, and the bigger picture eventually reveals itself.
The recollections of Miriam, Beverly's childhood friend and her self-described "unofficial archivist," who saved her "poems, drawings, photographs, and transcripts of her dreams ... whatever she decided to entrust to me," offer the reader a glimpse into Beverly's life growing up in Brooklyn. Miriam, clearly envious of the young Beverly, the "enchanted" girl every boy was in love with, also helped Beverly analyze her dreams - many of which were about her father, or about fleeing from Red Army soldiers through the fields and forests of eastern Poland.
Jennifer, Beverly's teenage daughter, who takes the helm of another chapter, is confused by her mother's mostly untold story. Haunted by the unknown (in dreams that resemble those that haunted her mother decades earlier ), Jennifer discovers four letters in her mother's bedroom, each from a different person or organization Beverly had contacted in the hope of finding her father. Jennifer reads and rereads the letters, before she finally summons the courage to confront her mother.
Among the other superbly drawn characters encountered throughout "Day for Night" are Sachs, an FBI agent who's been tracking the same mysterious woman for the better part of 13 years; Max, a 94-year-old widower, and his second wife Doris, Beverly's aunt and an Auschwitz survivor, who reveals her deepest secrets only on her deathbed. There's also a 30-year-old veterinarian, Vicki, who moves to a Negev kibbutz after purchasing a home in Massachusetts plagued with problems; Dee's brother Dillon, who is in a coma after crashing his motorcycle near the Dead Sea; and Amnon, a Six-Day War vet working at the Hai Bar nature reserve in the Arava valley.
Tricks up his sleeve
In offering such a variety of perspectives, Reiken displays impressive range. And as we get inside these people's heads, he makes the transition almost effortlessly between backstory and present adventure, his controlled storytelling and poetic, fluid prose allowing the book to move forward steadily and purposefully, albeit often heartbreakingly. Both book and writer pick up steam as the plot advances, leading to the exceptional feat Reiken pulls off by the end - not only in terms of the surprise in store for Beverly, but also the web he has woven to bring us there.
With regard to narrative style, Reiken has many, sometimes too many, tricks up his sleeve, including journal entries, letters, and oral and written testimony. One character, a neuroscientist in California, even acknowledges, in what feels like a metafictional, Borgesian wink at the reader: "I do not always speak this way. In fact, I do not believe I ever speak this way, but when notating a case study, this is the narrative voice that of its own accord seems to emerge."
It's difficult to classify this work as belonging to any particular genre, though Reiken certainly excels at building suspense. Dee, for example, taunts Tim with a letter about her childhood, which he believes holds the key to getting close to her; she changes her mind several times about whether to let him read it - ultimately taunting the reader as well. Reiken also builds suspense in the steady pacing of Sachs' debriefing after the FBI agent has a close encounter with the fugitive he is seeking, and the process by which the truth is uncovered about a videotaped run-in between Amnon and a Palestinian boy in Gaza further demonstrate the author's ability to build suspense. His book's most powerful moment comes when Doris slowly shares the painful wartime betrayal she's been hiding for decades.
Reiken succeeds in making the reader identify closely with his characters. You become haunted the same way they are haunted. Just as they seek comfort in others, you don't want to reemerge alone from the wounded world Reiken has built. While this is a novel about interconnectedness, it is also very much about the power of loneliness. Many characters are trapped in their subconscious and confronted by demons in their sleep, giving the entire book a kind of eerie, dreamlike quality.
Reiken's characters are human and flawed. He doesn't romanticize the Holocaust survivor. "I am called a survivor," Doris says, "but I survived only because I did not care. Because this made it harder for them to torture me. Because they knew that living was my torture." Nor does he sugarcoat the Israeli soldier. Meir, a reservist on duty in Gaza in the mid-1980s, recounts tormenting a Palestinian at a checkpoint in front of the man's children. When a disgusted Amnon tells him he deserved to be jailed, Meir's response is: "An Arab is not a man."
The writer reveals a keen understanding of his characters. For example, Miriam's husband, Howard, tells her, "Seeing [Beverly] ... I thought to myself that if I had met her when I was young I'd want to love her in a difficult way that would not suit me ... I would have tried to be what I am not. I would have failed because what I am is a man who should be with you." Upon first meeting Doris, Max says, he "recognized that, like most of us, she'd been deeply wounded. I sensed that, unlike most, she was aware of it." Beyond the intricate structure Reiken has built, he penetrates inner, emotional complexities, building a trust with the reader over the course of the story's 323 pages.
This is further achieved through his vast knowledge on varied topics - from marine biology to the personality traits of Dungeons & Dragons creatures to the fact that a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania helped thousands of Jews during the Holocaust - each morsel adding depth to the characters' occupations and preoccupations. Beautiful details enrich and sharpen encounters, like when the scientist studying dreams is suddenly visited in real life by the woman who has occupied his own.Yiddish gems are also interspersed throughout "Day for Night." When asked if Beverly had been beautiful in her youth, Miriam answers, "Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy miyes. My enemies should be as ugly" as she was beautiful.
With all the novel's wonderful characters, though, there is one who appears to exist primarily for the purpose of making the impossible happen. She is a catalyst for miracles, and though this has some beauty to it, it can also feel too easy, and jarring in comparison to the rest of the novel, which unfolds more realistically. Certain details were also distracting in that they didn't quite fit, for example the fact that Reiken had Amnon living in Eilat, when a nearby kibbutz in the Arava would have better suited him and his family's unconventional pets (including a hyena ). I also found myself frustrated by a few loose ends, though it would have been less believable had everything been tied up perfectly at the conclusion of a story that already demands a certain leap of faith.
After passing on Doris' secret, Max says: "When I'd finished speaking, I recognized that I was no longer this story's keeper. Then it was over. I had nothing else to say."
Reiken is the keeper of a great, often tragic, story - one that is yours when it's being told to you, and one you won't soon forget.
Sharon Fishfeld is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.