Next week, we’re going to have Anita Diamant, author of the new book Day after Night, blogging for us. It’s pretty thrilling — among other things, she’s going to tell us about her Zionism, the director’s-cut story of the book’s cover, and why she wrote about 1945-era Palestine in the first place.
One of the coolest things, though, was that we got to get a sneak preview of her new book. So I figured I’d check it out — just to let you know.
At the time that Anita Diamant published her first novel, The Red Tent — a retelling of several Torah stories that casts Jacob’s daughter Dina, instead of a rape victim, as a girl who falls in love with a foreigner and leaves her family for an uncertain future in Egypt — she was already a well-established writer of Jewish nonfiction, with three books on Jewish themes (and, of course, several equally world-shaking articles for MyJewishLearning) under her belt. The publication of The Red Tent rocked the Jewish literary scene — in no small part because the book was a phenomenon, not just in the Jewish world, but in the general world. I can’t remember another book giving the Jewish book-reading public more of a feeling of “What will the goyim think of us?”
This time, her playing field is a different sort of historical fiction: the post-Holocaust world of 1945 Palestine.
In the same way that Inglourious Basterds is spoken of as not being a Holocaust film, Day after Night is also not a Holocaust book. Still, the specter of the event looms large over the characters and events of this novel. Four young women — a concentration camp survivor, a woman who’s been in hiding for the past years, an ardent Zionist and a former beauty queen — are all prisoners inside a British internment camp, waiting for the army to consent to release them. When that release doesn’t happen, they start planning their own.
I had never read The Red Tent. The whole idea behind it seemed to me both anti-traditionalist and anti-feminist — effectively, reinterpreting the Torah‘s report of a rape by saying “no, it’s okay, she wanted it”…well, it’s the stuff that college nightmares are made of. (Then again, I’m coming at the story from the perspective of someone who believes every word of the Torah in the first place.)
So there’s my baggage going into Day after Night. That and, when I heard about the plot, I felt an instant flashback to the late 2008 filmmaking season: “What, another Holocaust film?”
So I took it on my morning commute, far underground on the subway, where I couldn’t do anything else, anyway.
I have to say: Ten pages in, I was pretty solidly converted.
Tedi, a recent convert to the British-run Atlit internment camp, is wary, but trusting. After the hell she’s been through, she’s ready to launch herself into a new life, whatever the life may be. Subtly but effectively, Diamant launches the parallels between Atlit and concentration camps, always communicating the aura of dread that they’ve instilled in the prisoners but never staying there too long. The plot leaps between the four characters, building the greater plot through snippets of stories while keeping each of her protagonists front and center for their story.
It’s a weird mix of genres that Diamant’s playing with. There’s the new immigrant experience, the uncertainty of post-Holocaust Judaism, and the uncertainty of people’s basic lives. Tedi, still a recent arrival at Atlit, is already in the position of welcoming new women to the camp, taking care of them and giving them tips to survive. As the chapter ends, Tedi, imitating the woman who welcomed her to the camp, tells a bunch of lost and confused women to follow her: “As they filed past her, one girl stopped and kissed her cheek, leaving behind a trace of fresh lavender. The smell of hope.”
It’s more than a little cheesy. It’s also completely earnest, and it’s a tiny, uplifting emotional surge amidst the tumult of the camp. These are the moments that Diamant excels at: the ones of simple human sensation in the wake of these Big Events. When the climax of the book comes, it is not the daring escape of 200 prisoners from Atlit; it is the escape of a few people — two men vanishing out a doorway; a kiss between two people; the morning after, sitting in the safehouse of Bait Oren — that really gives Day after Night its power.