THE WAY BACK
By Gavriel Savit
“One bright summer day in the year eighteen hundred and twelve (by pagan reckoning) a girl left her mother’s house – the little house she was born in – and went to the blackberries on the other side of the forest to gather the little ones Summer strawberries growing in the shade. “
This opening sentence tells you what’s coming: the rhythms of an often-told fairy tale. A Jewish perspective. Archetypal characters instead of nuanced ones. Long sentences. Lush descriptions.
“The Way Back” is a youth novel about Bluma, the baker’s daughter, and Yehuda Leib, the angry boy without a father. Both live in the Tupik shtetl and have encounters with death that lead to a search. Bluma (who lost her grandmother) accidentally got hold of Death’s weapon, a razor-sharp spoon with “tiny pine needles made from crystalline frost.” She tries to throw it away, but it always comes back. She wants to be invisible to death and the other horrors of the world. Yehuda Leib wants to learn what it feels like to have a father. he wants to capture the light death has taken from his father’s eyes and never be called a bastard again.
To fulfill their wishes, the children travel to the distant land, a spirit realm full of demons, which Gavriel Savit has plucked from the Zohar and other Jewish mystical works. It is characterized by creepy images: there is a tree made of bones, “whose long, branchy extremities clatter against each other in the wind”; a stooped old woman “with hairy, twitching spiders instead of hands”; an officer of the Army of the Dead with slit pupil eyes on a steed “in an extreme state of decay, the bleached ribs of which are exposed”; A wheelchair made from long spun fingernails still attached to the hands of the person pushing it.
Savit (“Anna and the Swallow Man”) indulges in the repetition customary in oral tradition: we have been told that the robe of death is “blacker than the night, blacker than the darkness hidden in your eyes”; The demon Lilith is “neither old nor young, small nor big, simple or beautiful”. When death experiences human kindness, it experiences a sensation “like grief, but nothing at all like grief”.
The children get entangled and negotiate with various demons, visit a yeshiva under the Dead City and encounter the (human) wedding of their rebi’s granddaughter. A wedding is a place of magic, says Lilith Bluma. “Two cannot become one and both remain without a little magic.”
As a finalist for the National Book Award, “The Way Back” has been compared to Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”. But it also shares with Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” a delight in language, pun, and ridicule of bureaucrats; with S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” a focus on Jewish demons and the borderline force of weddings and cemeteries; and with the Orpheus myth, a warning about the need for silence in the rule of the dead. (Savit greets the musical “Hadestown” in the thanks.)
“The Way Back” is not suitable for every reader: It is meandering and sluggish, like a story that is told on many cold winter nights. Description and atmosphere, not a narrow plot or nuanced characterization, are its strengths. Perhaps fittingly, the second half of the novel – the return journey from the House of the Dead – has more narrative dynamism and tension than the first half, given its title. And in a non-starter for sensitive souls, a cat in a sack is repeatedly hit against a wall. (Granted, it’s a cat-shaped demon.) As a meditation on loss, fear, and anger, however, “The Way Back” feels as timeless as a fairy tale.