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The Singing Fire: A Novel Hardcover – February 3, 2004

3.6 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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The Underground Railroad
The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Two determined Jewish runaways strive for better lives in chaotic turn-of-the-century London in Nattel's rich and lovingly written second novel (after 1999's The River Midnight). Seventeen-year-old Nehama, who arrives from Poland in 1875, is quickly tricked into prostitution and brutalized by her boss, the squire. She escapes that sordid life-which Nattel unflinchingly, chillingly portrays-when she's taken in by a young couple in Frying Pan Alley. She becomes a skilled seamstress and eventually marries a kind tailor who knows little of her past. In 1886, Emilia, privileged but pregnant and unwed, flees her cruel father and weak mother back in Minsk. Nehama's and Emilia's paths converge when Nehama prevents the ruthless brothel owner who enslaved her from doing the same to Emilia. Emilia, who's posing as a widow, lodges with Nehama, but soon breaks under the drudgery of London's ghetto life. Leaving her newborn daughter with Nehama, who is unable to bear children after two miscarriages, Emilia decamps to London's Soho, where she works as a shop girl and catches the eye of Jacob, a successful Jewish writer who thinks the "golden-haired and gray-eyed" Emilia is a gentile. Both women are haunted by the pasts they conceal from their men, and sometimes comforted by beneficent ghosts: into this story of struggle and assimilation, Nattel skillfully weaves the guardian spirits of Nehama's grandmother and Emilia's father's first wife. The pacing is leisurely, and the prose is lovely, leavened by subtle humor and infused with intelligence.
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From Booklist

When small-town girls defy their families and flee to make their fortunes in the big city, we know they will suffer, and "no good will come of it." Except, that is, for the joy of reading about their adventures, as in Nattel's new novel, which adds definitely to the pleasures of the coming-of-age genre, female division. Craving independence, Nehama steals from her sisters for passage to turn-of-the-century London. But the Jewish girl has no English. She is quickly pressed into prostitution, losing her sense of smell along the way, but escapes into the East End's dangerous streets, appositely named Frying Pan Alley and such. She befriends another, pregnant runaway, Emilia, whose child she adopts. Each young woman goes her separate way, with Emilia's daughter the linchpin between the two. Set "when not to be new . . . was nothing," in a time of "bourgeois decadence" and The Yellow Book, with its stories of syphilis, slums, and illegitimacy, The Singing Fire portrays an era as compelling as its characters. Whitney Scott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 321 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st edition (February 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743249666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743249669
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,473,171 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is a fantastic novel in many senses of the word. Powerfully written and in the tradition of both Jewish fabulist fiction and contemporary magic realism. Centered on women's lives of about 100 years ago but relevant to both our practical and spiritual lives today. And you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy and treasure it!
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Format: Hardcover
Lilian Nattel is a good story teller, and she brings to life Jewish London in the 19th century. Why didn't I like this novel more? In "Singing Fire", I never could get involved because I felt the characters and their stories were there to illustrate the times, and to make an appealing novel, while never taking on a life of their own. As a better written novel, I would point out "Women of the Silk" by Gail Tsukiyama, also about women working under very poor conditions, in pre-WWII China.
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By Emily on November 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This is one of those works of historical fiction that creates a time and a place so vividly it feels like you fell into the book and are on the streets.
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Format: Paperback
After enjoying the original style of Nattel's first book, "The River Midnight," I was eager to read this follow-up novel. Like another reviewer, I was disappointed. I found this novel poorly constructed, with a rather contrived story line and cardboard characters to match. Characters like the Squire (Nehama's pimp in the first part of the book) and Emilia's father were one-dimensional, simply evil people with absolutely no complexity. I even found the main characters, Nehama and Emilia very difficult to identify or empathize with.

Many aspects of the book ranged from stretching it to highly unrealistic. Emilia, who wears a cross and passes for a Christian in order to get a job, then gets engaged to a Jewish man who loves her lack of annoying "Jewish" traits. Both her assimilated mother-in-law and her highly religious grandfather-in-law embrace her with fervor and affection, while insisting that she maintain various random aspects of Jewish observance (as a religious Jew, it was obvious to me that Nattel failed to research this aspect of the book; she should have had an Orthodox reader review it for inconsistencies and mistakes, of which there were many. I also found many of the Jewish characters highly stereotyped, like Vaudeville caricatures of what Jews act and sound like, complete with inverted sentences). Later, when the grandfather accidentally discovers Emilia's true origins, his reaction is one of -- anger. Anger? Wouldn't this devoutly religious man be joyful, or at least relieved, that his grandson had actually NOT married outside his faith? This was even inconsistent with the book itself -- when Emilia first entered the family, she was instructed to bend over backward so as not to offend him with her gentile ways.
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