Tamara Faith Berger is one of the finest and most daring literary writers of the erotic, adept at capturing the frequently contradictory desires that move us to question often unexamined impulses. Her previous work has mostly focused on the chaotic thrills and dangers specific to adolescent girlhood, addressing burgeoning female sexuality in ways that were equal parts stirring and delightfully appalling.
Queen Solomon, Berger’s latest novel, delves deep into the nature of obsessions, trauma, and desire in a way that is refreshingly complicated. To publish this novel right now, when most public discussions of sexuality are focused on consent and sexual violence, is pretty brave in itself. The narrative’s core relationship involves two people who could be victim or perpetrator – or both, or neither, depending on how one looks at it. Part of the ambiguity is due to the novel’s point of view. The book is narrated – unreliably – by a 16-year-old boy whose recollections are erratic, not only because he’s a hormonal teenager with parents who are going through a divorce but also as the result of a mental instability that keeps the reader unsure as to what is actually happening.
In brief, Queen Solomon focuses on the sadomasochistic dynamic between an upper-class Jewish-Canadian teen and the exchange student his family brings to Canada. If that doesn’t sound risky enough, it’s also about the racial politics of Israel, victimhood, abusive dynamics, and the way power can corrupt the formerly powerless. Almost every possible opinion on Israel is expressed and Berger provides no easy answers. By adopting this approach, she has produced a book that is unsettling in the best kind of way.
As the novel opens, our unnamed narrator’s father announces that he’s sponsoring an Israeli student to stay with the family. Barbra is 18, Jewish, and a native Ethiopian who was brought to Israel when she was just five years old during Operation Solomon (a 1991 Israeli military endeavour that covertly airlifted 14,000 Ethiopian Jews out of the country to save them from famine and instability). The narrator’s father calls Operation Solomon a miracle; Barbra describes it as an abduction.
The protagonist’s parents are at one another’s throats constantly. Divided on the subject of Israel, the mother accuses her soon-to-be-ex-husband of having a saviour complex and declares that “Israel has no framework for understanding race.”
As for Barbra, she’s no complacent victim, instead dealing with her new surroundings by drinking the adults’ wine and seducing the narrator. Or at least, that is how he presents it: we can’t really know how she would characterize it, since we are limited to the young man’s first-person narration. In Toronto Barbra encounters a very Canadian type of racism: she is mistaken for the nanny of the narrator’s younger sister by the other kids at the sister’s daycare. At another point, the narrator’s best friend, Joel, who can’t wait to do the Birthright heritage trip to Israel “for the bitches,” reduces Barbra to a racialized sexual object.
Something like tenderness exists between Barbra and the narrator, but from the start the relationship teeters on the edge of self-destruction. As we watch him unravel, her motivations and intentions remain unknown. The narrator often identifies Barbra, in retrospect, as his abuser, even though he is the active, dominant partner in their risky games.
These scenes of adolescent hormonal angst are juxtaposed with scenes set in the present, seven years after Barbra has left Canada under mysterious circumstances. The narrator has just begun to get himself back together after years of therapy to address what happened between them, when Barbra’s reappearance throws his life into chaos. Bouncing between the present and the past, the novel builds a propulsive, breathless quality. And of course it is punctuated with several brilliant, wholly unique sex scenes that provide not just titillation but a deeper psychological insight into the story. Queen Solomon is Berger’s most daring and accomplished work to date.