Sigal Samuel is already known for her prodigious literary output but the Mile End native has now produced a debut novel that is sure to bolster her reputation. A resident of Brooklyn nowadays, Samuel has been a journalist, editor, essayist and playwright, but has returned to where it all started for her first step into novel-length fiction. She was at Drawn and Quarterly last week to launch The Mystics of Mile End, a tale set among the Hasidim and hipsters of her youth, and, judging by the considerable crowd that turned out to hear her, a hotly-anticipated title by many Montreal book lovers.
The novel itself is a charmingly singular tale. Told from four perspectives, it explores the story of the Meyer family and the complicated relationships between them and the wider community. We start from Lev's point of view, before moving to that of his father, David, then on to his sister Samara, before concluding with a section told from the perspective of Mile End itself. Throughout, the story has a sense of magic and mystery that compels the reader from page to page while fanning a small flame of eccentric melancholy, thanks to the neighbourhood's many personalities. There's Mr. Katz who spends his days on his front lawn constructing the Biblical Tree of Knowledge out of toilet paper rolls and dental floss; there's Chaim Glassman, a Holocaust survivor who lives with his wife as well as a host of untold and terrible memories; and there's the wider cast of characters who all carry some whisper of a hidden depth into the lives of the Meyers and who help to weave enigmatic threads through this familiar, urban setting.
It's this blend of mystery and Montreal life that is one of Samuel's most effective achievements but it's by no means the only way that The Mystics of Mile End succeeds. As the author told the crowd at D&Q, she has tried to work the Jewish textual tradition within which she grew up into the narrative while keeping it accessible; the way in which references to Kabbalah are sprinkled throughout the text is a wonderful complement to the mystical element that courses through the characters' lives. She's also done a good job of painting a portrait of Mile End that is vivid, personal and sure to be of interest to anyone who has known the area, past or present. The book abounds in descriptive detail of streets and people that will be immediately familiar to Montrealers despite being glazed with Samuel's particular blend of the mundane and the magical.
Last Thursday marked the first night of a small Canadian tour, the dates of which you can check here but, failing that, you should be able to get hold of a copy at good book stores across the city. If the rapid sales at D&Q are anything to go by, you'd better act fast.