In a World of Secrets

"Near the beginning of Aryeh Lev Stollman's first novel, the narrator is taken by his anxious mother to visit a Gypsy seer. ''All secrets,'' the wizened Mademoiselle Dee Dee cautions, ''contain the seeds of death.'' With every page of this radiant book, her warning seems more prescient.

"Set in Windsor, Ontario, during the 1950's and 60's, The Far Euphrates is remarkable both for Stollman's eloquently understated prose and for the ease with which he constructs his artful plot. The narrator, Alexander, is, like the author, the son of a rabbi, and at first glance the story he tells seems to have all the naturalness and specificity of a reminiscence of childhood. Only in the closing pages does it become fully apparent how purposeful Stollman is, and to what cunning effect he has concealed that purpose.

"A solitary boy — un reveur his mother, Sarah, calls him — Alexander spends most of his time with adults. Next door to his family live the childless cantor and his wife. Berenice, a lively woman with a passion for fine shoes, is Sarah's best friend and a second mother to Alexander. Her husband, a passionate cook whose exquisite singing lures even gentiles to the synagogue, is also fond of the boy. In addition, the cantor's twin sister, Hannalore, visits frequently from Grosse Pointe, outside Detroit, where she works as head housekeeper for Henry Ford 2nd. It is she who introduces Alexander and his mother to the seer. As we quickly come to understand, Hannalore has her own reasons to be concerned with luck.

"Alexander's world is larger than this brief list might suggest. His father, a man of deep scholarship, is committed to passing on his learning to his son. When he reads to the boy, they repeat each sentence in Hebrew, English and German. The blue zigzag of the Euphrates on the map on the rabbi's study wall is almost as real to him as the nearby Detroit River. ''Our forefathers,'' he tells Alexander, ''originally came not from Kana'an, not from an earthly Jerusalem, but from the far Euphrates with its source in Eden. . . . We cannot forget it, or ever find it again.''

"But they have found an approximation, and into their little Eden comes a serpent of sorts, Alexander, the only child among five adults. His mother's worries about him are by no means groundless. We first begin to see the odd side of his nature when two children are killed in a freak car accident and their distraught parents come to the rabbi for comfort. Alexander eavesdrops on their conversation — until his laughter betrays his hiding place. When his mother angrily sends him out of the room, he leaves the house and wanders off to the site of the accident. There a girl, whom he recognizes as an occasional visitor to the synagogue, approaches him. ''I think it's hilarious too,'' she says, introducing herself as Marla Cook. ''I have a hole in my heart,'' she adds, ''and could die at any time.''

"Sarah's anxieties about Alexander are fueled not only by his inappropriate reactions but by difficulties in her own life. At an early age, her brother fell ill and was institutionalized in a mental hospital. This led the rabbi's parents to oppose his marriage to her, out of a fear that Sarah might suffer the same fate. More recently, she has been unable to have another child. As Berenice explains to Alexander: ''Your mother's been trying again for a long time, but the opening to her womb is too loose. Just like a trapdoor. You must have been clever to hold the door shut the whole time. . . . A real survivor, to have figured it all out before you were born!''

"So it is great news when Sarah finally announces that she is pregnant. To allow her to rest, 10-year-old Alexander is sent to stay for the summer with Berenice and the cantor at their cottage on Lake St. Clair. Berenice has always been close to Alexander, and now, lulled by the long weeks of intimacy, she reveals the terrible truth about her husband and sister-in-law's past in Europe during the war. Then she swears him to silence. ''Some things,'' she tells him, contradicting Mademoiselle Dee Dee, ''must always remain secret.'' A few weeks later, Sarah miscarries and Alexander is stuck with yet another secret: his passionate reaction to the young man who brings the news.

"That autumn, Hannalore moves to Florida. Suddenly, events leap forward. The rabbi's father dies, Marla dies, the cantor falls ill. On the afternoon of his 16th birthday, Alexander sews up the curtains of his room and refuses to emerge. He has decided to perform tzimtzum, a ceremonial withdrawal from the world, a reflection of God's actions at the Creation, when ''He withdrew into Himself, contracting His very being, and made within Himself an isolated place in which to set His universe.'' The final third of the novel details the effects of Alexander's retreat and hints at its complex causes.

"To what purpose has Stollman laid out the many-layered story of Alexander and his extended family? Most novels would be content to show how our lives are shaped by history, but this one seems to be after something even larger. At the heart of The Far Euphrates lie the vexed questions raised by the Holocaust and its legacy: how we must try to solve for ourselves the riddle of God's existence and cultivate a sense of mercy in an unforgiving age."

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A Dreamer's Coming of Age: A first novel ponders family and religion

"Alexander, the rabbi's son, is a daydreamer. His mother, a worrier, wishes he would get outside and play more. She fears he's absorbing a cringing pessimism like her own. Alexander's even-tempered father is more relaxed, well aware that he's a bit of a dreamer himself.

"Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Far Euphrates, a first novel about a Jewish boyhood in Canada during the '50s and '60s, glides beguilingly between childhood and adulthood, between secrecy and candor, between the world we can see and the unknowable beyond.

"The universe that Stollman creates, bounded mostly by Alexander's family in Windsor, Ontario, is tiny, even claustrophobic, yet it raises some very large questions. What are our obligations to family members? How does the past define us? How does religious wisdom relate to our knowledge of the physical world?

"Alexander, an only child, has no playmates. Yet at least until his teens he is well-adjusted, ballasted by his father's stability. His mother is built of more fragile stuff. Crushed by fears, she renders herself ever smaller. Hence Alexander's growth is dependent on others.

"Chapter by chapter, more of the world impinges on Alexander. Sometimes mysteries are solved; sometimes he is exposed to deeper, insoluble ones. No matter which, his eyes remain open, his curiosity boundless.

"Early on, the role of guide falls to his mother's best friend, Berenice, the cantor's wife. She introduces the boy to the cantor's sister, Hannalore. A visit to Henry Ford II's estate across the river outside Detroit, where Hannalore is employed as head housekeeper, becomes a lesson in wealth beyond his imagining. It's also a lesson in his mother's foolishness, delivered by an elderly Ford neighbor who says there's no reason to rid Alexander of his daydreaming. "We are stupid and poor, stupid and poor!" Alexander chants on the ride home.

"If Alexander's mother sets limits to his horizons, his father expands them, via countless books and instruction in German and Hebrew as he gets older. On the rabbi's office walls are maps of the ancient Middle East, the focus of his arcane studies in theology, philology and cosmology. A former graduate student of physics, he has a mind stuffed with both Einstein and the kabbala.

"The rabbi's mind stretches into the past and into the farthest reaches of space. Perhaps to think less about tangled relationships closer to home. His parents, academics and steadfast atheists, have disowned him for embracing religion. (Interestingly, Stollman has them living back in Germany, their homeland, painting them as forsaking the best part of their Jewish identity.)

"What's more, the rabbi's wife has suffered several miscarriages. Then there's the scandal of his brother-in-law, Avner, born with neurological afflictions and shunted off to an institution as a boy. When Avner dies in middle age, Alexander has never heard of his uncle.

"Alexander receives these revelations in bits and pieces, as a gradual fragmentation of his seemingly placid existence. Most unsettling is the news of his mother's dissatisfaction with him, her fond wish that she could bear children who are more "normal." "Maybe because I've let Berenice share you," she informs Alexander, "God will bless me with another child." God never does.

"By his 16th birthday, Alexander withdraws to his room and stays put for a year. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: Now his mother really does have a weirdo for a son. "Am I your punishment?" he shouts at her.

"In a subplot, a girl named Marla Cook appears as a kind of gentile angel, dying of a rare disease while blessing Alexander with friendship. Even so, she is a tart-tongued angel brandishing her wit like a sword. Death is never far from Alexander, and the Holocaust will yield its share of horrific secrets.

"Stollman explores his somber themes with a remarkably light touch. This is a coming-of-age tale told in simple, uncluttered language and scenes so artfully crafted that they seem artless. His characters speak to us with authority because they are at once wonderfully vivid and wonderfully mysterious.

"In its quirky, understated beauty, The Far Euphrates resembles another fine first novel, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, published last year.

"But the book is also a coming-home-to-religion story. Given the simple eloquence of its prose, its assured storytelling and its subtle grasp of Jewish family life and heritage, it's more kin to the fiction of the late, great Bernard Malamud."

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Ties That Blind: Young hero of first novel finds harsh truths

"Alexander, the dreamy hero of Aryeh Stollman's luminous first novel, The Far Euphrates, must learn to shoulder the burden of a weighty, terrifying and precious legacy — an inheritance combining elements of the spiritual and the corporeal, the mysterious and the mundane, of fantasy and of a history more horrifying than our darkest imaginings.

"His father, the rabbi of a small Ontario city, has immersed himself in the lost languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East. His mother is prone to repeated miscarriages and delusional depressions. His neighbor, the cantor, is a survivor — along with his sister — of the infamous medical experiments that the Nazis performed on twins. And the cantor's childless wife, Berenice, fixes on Alexander as the object of her frustrated maternal passions.

"In his progress toward adulthood, in his efforts to assimilate the bizarre complexities of his sheltered and seemingly placid childhood, Alexander travels from Grosse Pointe to Crown Heights; he encounters a fortune-telling Gypsy dwarf installed in a Detroit mansion, a wealthy, doomed and highly eccentric little girl who leaves him a valuable sapphire, and a famous Brooklyn rabbi whose pronouncements mingle cabalistic teachings with banalities.

"Alexander survives neighborhood tragedies, a tornado and a self-imposed retreat to the confines of his bedroom, from which he eventually emerges with the first stirrings of the resolve to embrace the flawed and beautiful world, and to accept the man he is about to become.

"Stollman writes beautifully, in a rich, clear, metaphorical language energized by an awareness of how thoroughly the quotidian is infused with, and animated by, the magical. So, in the novel's lovely first scene, a dessert of petits fours iced with musical notations becomes a vision of a family eating music. ("My mother picked a phrase off the serving platter and gazed at it. I remember her taking a small bite into the treble clef . . . ")

"Stollman enlarges and enriches his coming-of-age story with a daring variety of artfully integrated subplots, with references to opera, to the Holocaust, to Jewish mystical tradition, and with a series of appalling secrets that the plot uncovers, one by one.

"Early in the book, Alexander's father tells him that "God's sweet letters were also the powerful tools whereby He created light and everything in the universe." And we finish The Far Euphrates confirmed in our belief in the religious — the mystical — power of words.

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History Haunts the Quick and the Dead

"The Holocaust is put to use as a kind of icon in the pages of The Far Euphrates, a spare but affecting first novel by Aryeh Lev Stollman. Twins and Gypsies, two of the lesser-known victims of torture and death at the hands of the Nazis, are briefly and obliquely invoked as emblems of separation and suffering, as if to illustrate the aphorism uttered by a concentration camp survivor named Jean Amery: "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured."

"But the real focus of the novel is Stollman's alter ego, a pampered young man named Alexander who may be haunted by history but is even more fascinated with himself. As he muses over the experiences of his childhood and adolescence, Alexander is given to flights of fancy, which explain why his doting mother complains, "he is too much of a dreamer."

"Eventually and I suppose inevitably, I myself became an object of study," Alexander says of himself. "I stood and examined the container of my soul carefully in the closet mirror." What he hopes to find are "those most personal and valuable of treasures, our accumulated knowledge and memory," which "are locked away, held prisoner within the disintegrating vault that is our corporeal selves."

"Such grand flourishes are the price of admission to an interior world that the author succeeds in creating, a realm in which even ordinary sights and sounds are made to seem simultaneously enchanted and demonic. Significantly, Stollman is a radiologist at a New York hospital, and his prose functions rather like an X-ray in probing the innermost reaches of body and soul.

"When Alexander muses over his father's passion for the language and culture of long-dead civilizations of the ancient Near East, the whole scholarly enterprise seems like a quest for some marvelous but forbidden knowledge, and ordinary correspondence from fellow scholars turns into powerful talismans. "I could hold them up to the light of a window," Alexander rhapsodizes over the envelopes that arrived in the mail, "and see my fingers on the other side, transilluminated by a universally shining sun."

"In fact, the dreamy young Alexander is wandering toward a revelation that will shatter the facade of order and certainty that his parents have struggled so hard to maintain. Death begins to intrude into the here and now of his childhood in the Canadian border town of Windsor: Someone begins to kill and mutilate dogs in the neighborhood, a couple of children are killed in their own backyards in a freak automobile accident, a dying girl summons him to her bedside — and somehow all of these horrors are linked in ways that he can only dimly understand.

"When Alexander slips into what may be a nervous breakdown, he imagines himself entering an exalted mystical state. He believes that he is the almighty at the moment of creation when "He withdrew into Himself," contracting "His very being, and [making] within Himself an isolated place in which to set his universe." It is a notion, he explains, that draws upon traditions of cabalism that he explored in his father's library.

"Whether Alexander's spiritual crisis leads him to clinical depression or divine insight, the result is a flash of enlightenment in which all of the darkest mysteries are revealed. One of the revelations about a kindly old cantor and his tormented twin sibling is so unexpected, so horrific, that they caused my heart to race and my skin to crawl.

"Every secret struggles to reveal itself, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once observed, and so it is in The Far Euphrates. "There are no secrets here," says an unlikely character named Mademoiselle Dee Dee, a woman who turns out to be the gatekeeper to even more remote and forbidden worlds than the one that Alexander inhabits. "All secrets contain the seeds of death."

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"Reminiscent of a Hasidic tale in its deceptively quiet, gentle tone, this masterful debut offers up its darkest secrets with heartbreaking delicacy. The son of a rabbi in Windsor, Ontario, Aryeh Alexander ben Shelomo lives in a sheltered world tightly circumscribed by his parents' friendship with the family of Cantor Bernard Seidengarn, which includes his wife, Berenice, and his twin sister (and fellow Auschwitz survivor), Hannalore. This tight-knit family circle can't banish unspoken memories of the Holocaust, memories that debilitate Alexander and send him into escapist reveries. When his mother, Sarah, worries over his daydreaming ways, the three women consult a gypsy "prophetess"; later, when 16-year-old Alexander withdraws to his room for a year, his father consults a Hasidic rebbe. Thus buffeted between "my mother's uncontrollable fears and my father's unanswerable intellectual and spiritual pursuits," Alexander harbors a disturbing secret, a secret even he doesn't fully understand, about the horrors that the twins suffered in the laboratory of Auschwitz's mad doctor Josef Mengele. Though steeped in religious sensibility and learning, this warm, contemplative novel works on its readers' most visceral sympathies and fears."

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"A ruminative and wonderfully moving first novel about a sheltered boyhood and adolescence, tracing the confusions and pains visited on its sensitive protagonist by approaching maturity. Aryeh Alexander, a rabbi's son, grows up in the 1960s in Windsor, Ontario. His doting extended family is dominated by his mother's childless best friend Berenice and by Hannalore, the twin sister of his father's Cantor and a survivor whose long-repressed memories of WW II Europe comprise one of several disillusioning lessons Alexander is fated to learn about the complex freedoms and burdens of adulthood. From his scholarly father, Alexander learns that "it's human nature to seek out patterns wherever they may present themselves'' — and the novel proceeds to show his instruction in both the necessity and the limitations of discovering such patterns. The Cantor's patient tending of his potted palm trees cannot prevent the devastation wrought by a tornado. No amount of familial love or protectiveness can prevent the sufferings or deaths of the innocent. And the laborious research undertaken by Alexander's father into the geographical and spiritual origins of mankind in the valley of "the far Euphrates with its source in Eden'' is destined to yield endless and unanswerable further questions in place of ultimate answers.

"Stollman expertly dramatizes both Alexander's inevitable fascination with the world outside his somewhat insular family (the mercurial personality of a "deformed'' girl who simultaneously courts him and pushes him away; his sexual fixation on the briefly glimpsed figure of a handsome older boy); and the intellectual and moral momentum that draws him, despite himself, into the embracing orbit of the world of his fathers. A series of losses, and the acceptance of s and accommodations to — loss elevate the lyrical final pages into both a thoroughly satisfying elegy for all the things that cannot remain and an affirmation of our right and need to believe in the essential permanence of things and of the spirit."

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"Windsor, Ontario, is the setting for this mystical debut novel, a coming-of-age story about the lonely son of Holocaust survivors. Alexander's parents — a rabbi and his fearful wife, along with the cantor and his wife, who live next door, try to protect the young boy, raising him in a tangle of "secrets and lies." But he learns that his mother has a brother in a mental institution and that the cantor and his sister were part of Josef Mengele's "medical" experiments on twins in Auschwitz. He tries to emulate his academic father and the grandfather he never knew by accumulating endless knowledge about the secrets of the universe. Alexander's small world is delightfully peopled by uncommon folk, and philosophical questions about the post-Holocaust world are probed through many of the boy's adventures.

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"Aryeh Lev Stollman's first novel, set in early 1960s Windsor, Canada, is a deep tale of isolation, secrecy, and eventual self-acceptance. Alexander's high-strung mother worries that he spends too much time on his own, a fear that seems almost ironic in view of the family's closed circle. Her best friend, Berenice, and her husband have no children — and Alexander eventually teases out the reason: the Cantor and his twin, Hannalore, were tortured in Auschwitz by Dr. Mengele. Hannalore works across the river in Grosse Pointe, as chief housekeeper for Henry Ford II, and now keeps her religion to herself — to the point of wearing a gold cross. "She once explained to my mother and Berenice, 'When I walk down a street it is only me, old Mademoiselle Hannalore, comprends? and I am practically, deliciously invisible. A happy and contented ghost.'" In fact, none of Alexander's role models are happy, and all are burdened by the Holocaust.

"The Far Euphrates is a beautiful, riddling examination of familial pain and fear and religious passion. Alexander's rabbi father uses the Bible to instruct him in language's beauties and complexity: "My father had started reading Genesis with me, slowly, in its original tongue, where the dotted vowels clustered like bees around the honeyed consonants. We read each sentence together, carefully, first in Hebrew, then in English, and finally in German." But Alexander is also aware of language's dangers and religion's rigidity. Later in the novel, following one tragic revelation too many, he has "the unpleasant feeling that even loving words are dangerous." And if words are dangerous, what about the historical and emotional reality they attempt to express? Stollman takes on large subjects in a small, heightened setting. In lesser hands, his quiet opera would descend into melodrama. Stollman doesn't even skirt that possibility."

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