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Sisters, Secrets and Shivah in the Novel ‘Evening’

Nessa Rapoport tells her tales with utter clarity and dignity, and yet her prose also is charged with energy, emotion and sly humor.
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October 1, 2020

“I have always been intrigued by what is hidden,” announces a character in “Evening,” the latest novel by Nessa Rapoport (Counterpoint).

The voice we hear belongs to Eve, a woman who (not unlike the author herself) was born into a Jewish family in Toronto but “sought grandeur and danger in New York.” As the book opens, Eve has returned to join her family at the funeral of her sister, Tam, which is the occasion for a long-delayed reunion that is blighted by shared loss. “What secrets is she taking with her, I find myself wondering, as the dismayingly small box is lowered into the depths,” muses Eve, thus defining with precision the mystery that the author is seeking to solve in the pages of “Evening.”

Rapoport is an accomplished writer whose earlier and much-lauded work includes a novel (“Preparing for Sabbath”), a collection of prose poems (“A Woman’s Book of Grieving”) and an award-winning memoir (“House on the River”). She tells her tales with utter clarity and dignity, and yet her prose also is charged with energy, emotion and sly humor. Above all, she is capable of revealing the innermost thoughts and perceptions of her characters in deft and illuminating strokes.

All of these gifts are richly displayed in her latest novel. Thus, for example, when Eve describes her sister’s funeral, she calls our attention, ever so briefly but with sharp impact, to “the horror, the open rectangle before me.” Her brother-in-law’s demeanor at the gravesite is summed up in single spare phrase: “A rebuke.” And we will eventually discover that Eve cannot erase the memory of the dismissive words that her sister once spoke to her: “Everything you’ve done has been driven by what’s between your legs.”

Nessa Rapoport tells her tales with utter clarity and dignity, and yet her prose also is charged with energy, emotion and sly humor.

Eve may seek to find what is hidden, but Tam does not make it easy. When young Eve finds her sister’s diary, “it read like an army manual.” Yet Eve finds “something ferocious, spellbinding, in her relentless transcription of the mundane.” The diary is only a clue: “What would I discover,” she muses, “that would explain with finality not Tam’s secrets but the secret of Tam?” When Eve comes upon a spare but provocative entry — “I know something Eve doesn’t know” — Eve is baffled but realizes that “Tam had verbalized the operating assumption of our lives.”

The story that Rapoport tells begins on the day of her sister’s funeral and continues, day by day, for the seven days of shivah. But the narrative flashes back and forth across the lives of Eve, the rebel who ends up “teaching obscure women about obscure women,” and Tam, “an everywoman raised one or two degrees above the norm” who becomes a media celebrity in Canada. And Eve fulfills her vow, revealing her own intimate relationships and those of her sister and the other members of her extended family.

Rapoport infuses her novel with both poignancy and humor, sometimes in the very same passage. For example, she describes how Tam turns to Eve in adolescence with an urgent demand.

“I want to know how to be sexy, and I want you to teach me.”

“ ‘How to be sexy,’ I repeated stupidly.”

“ ‘It can’t be what you wear,’ Tam said, “ ‘because you dress like a schlump.’”

“Undeniable.”

And yet, once Tam is gone, it is Eve who “is jealous of my dead sister because she had a lover who could say to her, ‘I want to breathe you into me’ ” while one of her own suitors dismisses “the words of youthful love” as nothing more than “a language illicit love must imitate to achieve the same density of desire.” Eve replies to her half-hearted lover with a stab of ironic humor: “I love it when you talk dirty.”

Not every revelation is shattering or titillating. Rapoport shows us an encounter between Eve and her young niece, Ella, who demands that Eve tell a story about Eve and Tam in childhood that Ella has heard many times before from her mother. The scene is both charming and heartbreaking because Ella knows the story so well that she can finish her aunt’s sentences right down to the punchline: “We laughed so hard that we peed in our pants.”

We are meant to follow in Eve’s footsteps as she searches for her sister’s secrets, but Eve herself is the character whom we come to know best, whose quirks we admire and whose pain touches our hearts. “I am appalled to realize how much I’d love to blow up everything, a frenzied anarchist,” she confesses at one moment. At the very moment when she arrives at the front door of her family home on the day of the funeral, she allows us to glimpse what drove her away so many years ago. “Waiting for the doorbell to chime is like waiting for Canada to change,” Eve thinks to herself. “I have never been able to explain to my family why this country’s most soothing feature, its sedate proceeding from one occurrence to the next, is such an irritant to me, inciting behavior more outrageous than I’d planned.”

At times, Eve’s burden seems unbearable: “I want to anoint the altar of grief with a sacrifice,” she tells us, “but I do not know what to offer.” The author herself, however, understands that the only appropriate offering is to bear witness to the life of the deceased. That’s exactly what Rapoport does in the pages of “Evening,” thus reminding us of what is really meant when we add the words “of blessed memory” to the name of one who is gone.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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