The CJN’s new book columnist looks at ‘All the Shining People’ by Kathy Friedman and Jonathan Papernick’s ‘I Am My Beloveds’

In this new book review column, Hannah Srour will explore recent and upcoming publications of specific interest to readers of The CJN.

All the Shining People by Kathy Friedman

For her debut, Kathy Friedman puts Toronto’s South African Jewish community in the spotlight. In a dozen loosely connected short stories, she weaves a colourful and rich tapestry of the community—and does so masterfully.  

In its examination of the immigrant experience, All the Shining People draws on Jewish novels of the early-to-mid 20th century. Each story features a character in an intensely personal vignette, grappling with the intersections of multiple identities: equal parts South African, Canadian… and Jewish. They wrestle with relational and intergenerational strife, as well as with the legacy of apartheid.

Through scenes of life in two nations, we meet individuals and families at various stages of immigration, whether they are preparing to emigrate, newly arrived, or Canadian-born. Many settings will be immediately recognizable to Toronto Jews, such as the Promenade Mall in Thornhill and Kensington Market.

Friedman’s collection is beautifully written, too. Particularly moving are the titular story All the Shining People, which describes high school students’ reactions to a peer’s attempted suicide, Hentie’s Voice, featuring a girl preparing for her bat mitzvah, and The Burn, about a woman and her husband on their first visit back to South Africa following a death in the family.

The final story, Hineni, is a striking conclusion. Evoking elements of mystical Yiddish literature, it is told from the perspective of a man who has just died, preparing to present his case before God.

Friedman constructs fully fleshed-out characters who come across as familiar members of the Canadian Jewish community. Their struggle for belonging shows the extent to which one’s identity is impacted by one’s environment. Their stories show that no matter where you go, your home will always stay with you.

While the individual tales shine on their own, each is enriched by the ones that follow, forming a beautiful constellation of work.

(All the Shining People will be published April 5 by House of Anansi.)

I Am My Beloveds by Jonathan Papernick

Early in this novel, narrator and protagonist Ben Seidel wanders contemplatively around the room that his wife Shira, an up-and-coming Judaica artist, uses as her studio.

He looks at the beautiful ketubbot she has designed, as he considers the shambolic state of his own marriage, reflecting on the meaning of that famous phrase from the Song of Songs: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” from which Jonathan Papernick derives the title. And this poignant scene resonates throughout the Toronto-born writer’s latest work.

After a difficult trauma utterly disrupts their well-laid plans, Ben and Shira introduce “ethical non-monogamy,” or polyamory, into their relationship. First Shira gets a girlfriend, then Ben follows; suddenly, they are navigating a complicated web of relationships as they continue to unravel their own.

I Am My Beloveds is a remarkable work of fiction. While the plot summary may suggest that readers are in for a titillating view into the hazy world of open relationships, the story is more profound. Papernick treats his characters with incredible empathy, rather than voyeurism, as they explore the possibility of having more than one “beloved.”

His writing is striking and poignant too, and I was gripped from the outset. Given that polyamory is a driving force in his examination of the boundaries of love in the 21st century, all aspects of these relationships are portrayed—including the complicated sexual dynamics. (And with its several explicit passages, reader discretion is advised.)

The novel is wonderfully unpredictable at each turn, mimicking the natural, flowing evolution of relationships as they enter new phases. Ben and Shira are intimately engaged outside of their own marriage, but their connection is the beating heart of the novel. In this way, I Am My Beloveds is a love story at its core.

Hannah Srour is a member of the Association for Jewish Libraries’ (AJL) Jewish Fiction Award Committee and sits on the executive board of AJL-Canada. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at srour_hannah.