Book review: Jacob’s Folly by Rebecca Miller

REBECCA Miller cut her literary teeth focusing on women’s lives, and some subversive women’s lives, too. Her short story collection, Personal Velocity, featured women on the run, women who had suffered long-term abuse, women who choose ambition over their marriage and so on.

Jacob’s Folly

by Rebecca Miller

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Canongate, 352pp, £18.99

And in her debut novel, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, she showed the wreck of a childhood, the sex and drugs youth that lay behind the apparent calm of a middle-aged woman.

So there’s no doubting Miller’s desire to say something meaningful, or brave, in her fiction. With his new book, that same desire at first appears to infuse the narrative: we begin with the transformation of 18th-century Jacob into the early 21st century as an angel – or, in his case, a fly.

And it’s as a fly that he can witness, and even affect, the lives of two people destined to meet: sickly but beautiful young Masha Edelman, suffering in hospital from mysterious chest pains, and “reliable, true” 
middle-aged Leslie Senzatimore, the owner of a marine company that fixes up boats, and the father of a deaf little boy, Stevie.

Leslie’s father killed himself when he was a boy, and it was as a boy that he found him, hanging from his shed roof. Leslie has grown up since with ‘rescue fantasies’; he works part-time as a fireman. He has tried to rescue his impoverished in-laws, buying the house next door for them to live in as they grow older and frailer; he wants to rescue his son from a deaf future but doesn’t know how to do it. Can such a good man stay good? Jacob, in his incarnation as a fly, wants to disrupt that goodness, see if he can destroy it.

But why? Why such malevolent intentions? To discover that we must slip back in time to Jacob’s life as a Jewish boy in eighteenth-century Paris where he works as a peddler. He is married off very young to Hodel, a young woman he views as a hysteric with “the mentality of a small child”, who flinches whenever he comes near her. His mother-in-law rules the family with dire predictions of devilment, but one day, after Hodel almost drowns in the Seine, things change. His wife seems to be inhabited by a demon herself; suddenly, she is voracious, filled with lust and greed.

It’s all too much for Jacob. He has come to the attention of a rich count, in the meantime, who wants his as a second valet. Jacob agrees to the position and abandons the horrors of his strange life at home. Meanwhile, in the twenty-first century, Masha is well enough to return to her Orthodox Jewish family home, where all the sisters who are old enough to be married have husbands and children, and she has to pretend to be working in an old folks’ home in the evenings so that she can sneak out to acting classes.

Both these strands of the story show the inner workings of two different Jewish families – there is a continuity here, a sense of the past affecting the present that only grows more strongly as the novel proceeds. Masha struggles with the limitations of her family’s faith, which restricts her – she mustn’t touch another man, be alone with a man in a room with the door closed, sing at table whilst the men are singing, and so on. Like Jacob she, too, wants to escape.

But both of them escape into a corrupt world. No longer sheltered by their faith, even as it threatens them (especially given that being a Jew in Paris is, for Jacob, constantly to flirt with danger and the possibility of expulsion or prison), they are innocents in the world of experience – Jacob’s count has perverse sexual tastes and has been dishonest about the reason he hired him in the first place; Masha is a provocative actor without even realising it, and men want to exploit her. Only Leslie can save her. Or can he?

Miller’s story is ambitious, given that it’s about redemption and forgiveness and the continuity of history, and it’s often compelling. Her prose wants to rise to match that ambitious scope but instead the grandeur of it sometimes feels overworked, especially in the early chapters, with unnecessary adjectives cluttering her sentences and proving distracting.

In her focus on the history of two Jewish families separated by three centuries lies the element that could be read as either subversive or conservative, depending on where you’re standing. The families themselves are outsiders, but two of their number want desperately to assimilate. Does that make Jacob and Masha rebels? Or conformists? In that respect, Miller’s novel raises important questions about what family means, and what society means, especially when one is at odds with the other.