By Michael Redhill
Penguin, Random House, Doubleday Canada
Who are you? What if you had another name, another family but didn’t know it? Would you still be Jewish?
Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square poses the first two questions directly. But based on the book’s narrative and other sources, the third question is one that I ask.
From the opening sentence, the first-person narrator, Jean Mason, establishes the central conundrum: “My doppelganger problems began one afternoon in early April.” A character reports to her that he has seen another woman who looks exactly like her but with short hair, and is shaken by his own mistake.
It is a conundrum that pursues her, at first gradually, then with more and more speed while she becomes obsessed with solving it in an increasing confusion of realities and identities.
Indeed, it becomes clear that the narrator who we met in the first sentence is unreliable. Does she have a mental illness? Is she Jean Mason, a Jewish book store owner, a Jewish instructor at Ryerson – or is she Ingrid Fox, a Jewish writer of mysteries whose real name is Inger Ash Wolfe; or is she all of these? But it is a tribute to Redhill’s talent that we still tend to identify with Jean Mason’s perspective until the last period.
At the end, a person described as a police officer by the narrator, begins interviewing her by saying, “Let’s start with your full name.” By this time, we are unsure of what the correct response would be. And no response is given as it is the last sentence of the book.
We also know that Redhill has written mystery novels under the pen name of “Inger Ash Wolfe,” who he has reportedly imagined as an older Jewish woman, tough and determined like the main heroine of these books, an older Jewish woman who is a police chief in a small town. Jean Mason’s husband is also a Jewish police chief of a small town.
This brings us to the fourth question about the persistence of Jewishness in all of these identities even though it is not a topic of discussion in the novel. It is simply stated without any attempt to explore what that Jewishness means. Thus Jean Mason is often in trouble with her husband for being late for Shabbos meals, her mother-in-law makes chicken for the children in her absence and the boys refer to their grandmother as Bubby. Is it by accident, that the whole personal identity crisis is brought to a head through a chance encounter at the Kiever Synagogue on Bellevue Square in Toronto with a female rabbi who claims to have had contact with the double in a Jewish women’s book club?
Redhill’s name is likely an English translation of Rotenberg or Roytenberg, another kind of alternate identity. Can we say that modern Jews are constantly reminded of the possibility of alternate identities, which they are called upon to choose? In Redhill’s novel, the focus is on personal identity, while Jewishness, which may be superficial, is nevertheless held constant as if it is so fundamental or conversely, as if it is irrelevant to the rest of the personality. Is this simply the reality for many modern integrated Jews in North America?
Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Centre of the Earth deals with shifting identities and values in the context of conflicts between individuals’ Jewish morality and loyalty to the Jewish state. Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House imagines the effects of an ancient sin on a modern Cohen through the operation of mystic forces and visions in the real world while simultaneously questioning the values of modern integrated Jews in New York.
But perhaps there is a more universal context for uncertainty about reality, values and identities with the rise of indifference to either truth or lies, depending like Humpty Dumpty, on gut level emotions for dictating meaning. The nature of reality can seem to shift from one tweet or person to another and to challenge the very concept of sanity.
Whatever the source for Redhill’s inspiration, his writing holds the reader breathless to the end and beyond. Bellevue Square is a novel worth reading and rereading.