Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

 Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope (Fig Tree Books, 2014)
I’ve always thought great literature charts the history of missed connections—and the human struggle to repair lost opportunities or absent relations. From Odysseus’s wandering return to Ithaca, to Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, to the social and familial alienation of Leopold Bloom, the poignancy of literary art often comes from the longings and lamentations over what-might-have-been.
Missed connections form the heart of Safekeeping, a beautiful novel by Jessamyn Hope that spans the centuries but centres largely on a kibbutz near Mt. Carmel in the mid 1990s. I’d picked up the book, of course, when I learned of its kibbutz focus, especially the setting of a community on the verge of privatization. But I fell under the spell of Hope’s storytelling, characterization and unexpected shifts in narrative focus, even as I enjoyed how she wove the history of the kibbutz movement and the state of Israel into her novel’s backstory.

The missed connections—and the emotional turmoil they cause—are plentiful in Safekeeping, and most gravitate around a mysterious brooch, made by a Jewish goldsmith in the 14th century, of great value and even greater personal significance. There are missed connections between a grandfather and grandson in New York City; a father and son in the same district; a kibbutz-founding mother and her privatization-minded son in Israel; two pairs of star-cross’d lovers—a Chernobyl-scarred immigrant and a Palestinian-Israeli, a thirty-year-old French Canadian who has grown up in a mental asylum and a teenage kibbutz musician disfigured in a terrorist attack; and the equally secretive affair between a Holocaust survivor and a kibbutz pioneer during the turbulent birth of a nation.
The brooch acts as an objective correlative to evoke this sense of missed connections even as it joins the disparate characters and historical timelines of the story, like E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the movie The Red Violin. But Hope never overplays the brooch’s symbolic significance, and many of the characters resist its allure in interesting ways while others let its raw worth corrupt their personalities.
The main narrative follows Adam, a young recovering alcoholic haunted by many mistakes, through his months as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the Galilee on a mission, to return the brooch to a once-intended-recipient, whose importance even he doesn’t fully understand. Some of the most powerful scenes, however, are short interruptions or epilogues to the story of Adam and his grandfather. In one, Hope vividly evokes the horrors and desperation of a Black Plague pogrom—and the act that sets the novel’s drama in motion.
History otherwise works in the background to the characters’ lives: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the Oslo Accords and bus bombings of the 1990s, the divided reaction to the Jewish State around the world, the rise and decline of the kibbutz movement as a society of equals. There’s a depth of research, but Hope never forces it upon her readers or her characters. Toward the book’s end, the vote about privatization on the novel’s kibbutz feels, in fact, anti-climactic. More important are the last actions of her cast of characters—and whether they can breach those missed connections that have left them alone, deeply damaged or both. Some do. Some don’t. We are often left to imagine how key figures manage the trajectory of their lives, rather than having it all spelled out for us by the book’s final pages.

And the conclusion is a masterful exercise in surprise and indirection—a novelistic risk that pays off—that left me thinking and rethinking about all the characters and their decisions that had populated my imagination for the past two weeks.
Come for the kibbutz content. Stay for the storytelling. Safekeeping is a book that you will want to pass along to friends and relations, like a small heirloom too beautiful to keep to yourself.

Mishmar HaEmek Memorial

David Dagan’s three-part account of his time on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek ends appropriately with an intriguing discussion of the Holocaust memorial on the kibbutz grounds—and how this intimate expression of personal grief feels more powerful than the better-known but more abstract memorial in Berlin, where the author is usually based. 

Last summer, I visited the same sculpted memorial, which is still pocked with bullet holes from the fierce fighting in 1948, and listened to Mishmar HaEmek member Lydia Aisenberg describe the annual service held on Holocaust Day. The images embedded in the rock are simple yet haunting. The central location of the memorial must carry a deeply symbolic resonance for the kibbutzniks, who have maintained a strong sense of solidarity even amid the changing social and political environment of their nation.

I’ve visited other Holocaust sites and memorials, of course: the Yad Vashem Museum near Jerusalem; the reconstructed death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland; and the walled town of Terezin in the former Czechoslovakia (which was used by the Nazis to dupe the Red Cross about the conditions and functions of their concentration camps). The memorial at Mishmar HaEmek is smaller in scale, narrower in focus, but has a similarly troubling effect. Through its imagery and words, the memorial connects your immediate sense of place—in this case, a kibbutz in the Jizreel Valley, a community that played a key role in the birth of the State of Israel and developing the ideals of the whole kibbutz movement—with a historical event of such profound and unfathomable horror that it feels like the ground is about to open beneath your feet.