Toronto writer Alison Pick follows up her Man Booker Prize–longlisted novel Far to Go with an unflinching, courageous memoir that delves deep into her own recently uncovered Jewish heritage. Raised in a Christian family by a father who kept his Jewish background a secret (and whose parents had kept it secret from him in order to avoid persecution), Pick sets out on a reclamation project, prompted in part by her ongoing depression.
There is an urgency to the book’s first half as Pick struggles not only to learn about what happened to the Jewish side of her family but to decide where she fits on the Judeo-Christian spectrum, and then how far down the road she’s willing to go: observe Shabbat weekly, say, or fully convert to Judaism. Obstacles to the latter quickly pile up. With a non-Jewish mother, Pick is technically not Jewish. And with a non-Jewish fiancé uninterested in converting, Pick has even greater difficulty gaining access to the community she covets.
It can be difficult to relate to Pick’s single-minded desire to be accepted as a Jew, but over time it becomes clear that she’s driven by a desperate need for connection to her past, a sense that she’s always been more Jewish than Gentile, and a near-masochistic desire to unearth and absorb what her family endured. And there’s the underlying premise that the passing down of “bad blood” tainted by the horrors and secrecy of the Holocaust are at the root of her depression, which works as a literary device but takes a leap of faith for a reader to believe.
The book’s second half focuses on Pick’s relationship with her supportive, loving partner, which is almost picture perfect. When their desire for a child becomes as intense as Pick’s desire to convert, a previously undetected sentimentality creeps in. But throughout the short, concise chapters, the author’s skill at storytelling and knack for cliché-free description are undeniable.
Sentences are lean, evocative, and raw with detail. She expertly builds, diffuses, and rebuilds tension, and the somewhat hurried ending nevertheless retains the nuanced complexities of real life. Because this is, after all, real life.