Listening for patterns in the chaos” is the overarching theme of Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, a four-pronged narrative about the mysteries of the universe set in the titular Jewish Montreal neighbourhood. With a style reminiscent of Heather O’Neill and Miranda July, Samuel uses a troubled family of three to explore the collision of science and religion, of faith in the unknown and the need for demonstrable contact with something real.
Samuel’s three main characters are David, a university professor, and his two children, Lev and Samara, each of whom gets a separate, first-person section. The family is dealing with the personal and spiritual fallout from the death of Lev and Samara’s mother, Miriam, who was hit by a car. Their grief-stricken journey involves several key supporting characters, including Alex, a science-obsessed classmate of Lev’s; Mr. Katz, who is building a replica of the mythical Tree of Life; and Mr. Glassman, a Holocaust survivor with an ailing wife.
There is much that Samuel does well in the early parts of this book. When Lev and Alex attempt to contact the International Space Station using a ham radio as part of a science fair, we get a wonderful metaphor for reaching out to the cosmos and hearing the voice of God. (This scene reminded me of the more touching moments in Carl Sagan’s Contact.) David develops a murmur – both literal and figurative – in his heart that eventually becomes a harbinger of his doom. Samara’s section deals mostly with her dropping out of university to confront the looming mysticism in her life. Throughout these sections, Samuel gives each character a unique voice and strong point of view.
Unfortunately, The Mystics of Mile End falls apart in its final stages, and by the last section, narrated in the third person, we’re lost in a swampy, saccharine melodrama. What starts out as a promising exploration of faith downshifts into a messy, unfocused rescue mission to save Samara from a state of catatonia brought on by mystical forces. It was a disappointing end to a novel that, for a time, held much potential.