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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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 ScottCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved