Amy Bloom, Away
Publisher: Random House
2007, 240 pages, hardback, $243.95
in her new novel Away, Amy Bloom avoids the clichés associated with immigrant literature. Although Away begins with an obligatory panorama of poverty, Bloom steers clear of the easy, sepia-toned sentimentality of PBS documentaries and Frank McCourt memoirs. Along with hundreds of young women, Lillian Leyb, a recent immigrant from Turov, Russia, waits outside a Goldfadn theater. At 22, Lillian has recently experienced the murder of her parents, husband, and-possibly-her daughter, Sophie, all the victims of the Russian pogroms. The proprietors of the Goldfadn-Reuben Burnstein and his son, Meyer-walk through the crowd, selecting young women to work as seamstresses. When Lillian boldly approaches the Burnsteins, she pitches her meager sewing skills in a hybrid of Yiddish, Russian, and newly memorized English phrases. At once she is a member of this “all-girl Ellis Island” and a clearly defined character, her will transforming her into “the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among other things” (emphasis mine). In other novels, the repetition of “thing” might seem inelegant, but in Away, the word is the most precise available, the perfect noun to describe Lillian’s new role in America. Bloom’s prose can swell into sustained lyrical passages but can also be blunt and earthy, like Lillian herself.
After Lillian introduces herself to the Burnsteins, she becomes a mistress to both men. Meyer, a famously handsome actor, rents her an apartment on Second Avenue. The apartment-“it’s like a stage set for a romantic comedy”-is deceptively furnished, the lush “wine-red cushions . . . hide a small hole in the seat of a rattan chair.” Lillian and Meyer do share tender moments, but for Meyer, who maintains a secret gay life, their relationship is mostly for appearances. Although her relationship with Ruben, the elder Burnstein, is more intimate, she never allows herself to become too attached: “it was pleasant, some tender kissing she hadn’t expected, nothing to lose her head over.” Her clearheaded assessment of their roles-“they are engaged in a sensible transaction, an exchange of goods and services”-further defines her character, resolute and always pragmatic, in a way that prepares the reader for the novel’s second half.
Although Lillian’s new life is momentarily stable, she continues to be haunted by vivid recurring dreams of her life in Russia. Bloom writes that “everyone has two memories . . . the one you can tell and the one that is stuck to the underside of that, the dark, tarry smear of what happened.” Lillian might be learning a new language-her friend Yaakov gives her a thesaurus and contemporary American novels-but the old-world pain is never far from the surface. When Lillian’s cousin Raisele arrives in America and tells Lillian that her daughter Sophie is alive in Siberia, the news reignites this pain. In one of the novel’s frequent lyrical riffs, Bloom writes that “Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood” and develops the metaphor of the forest fire-“fire leaps from . . . one tree to another, until the treetops send waves of fire face and forth between them, tossing flames like kites”-that helps us understand Lillian’s desperation to reunite with her daughter.
With the help of Yaakov, Lillian leaves New York on a cross-country journey to Siberia by way of Alaska. When Lillian reaches Seattle, she is taken in by Gumdrop, a black prostitute and would-be entrepreneur who questions customers about real estate investments and “wants to head a union of whores.” After Lillian hastily escapes to Alaska, she spends the winter in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women. The geographical and cultural anti-New York, Alaska allows Bloom to depict a less-familiar immigrant experience. Bloom, who credits several historical sources in her acknowledgements, has uncovered experiences not previously explored in immigration literature. She creates characters that are more than historical footnotes, inviting us to share her love for desperate people in an extreme environment.
Although Bloom’s accounts of secondary characters unfold deftly and lyrically, her digressions are one of the novel’s few weaknesses. At two-hundred and forty pages, Away is a little book with epic ambitions. Bloom develops so many secondary characters that she often neglects Lillian. At a crucial point in Lillian’s story, Bloom instead focuses on Chinky, another Work Center inmate, and flash-forwards in time, compressing Chinky’s life-her first romantic meeting with her Mormon husband, her married life and suicide-into ten pages. While Bloom uses this flash-forward technique successfully elsewhere, especially in the short digressions on Yaakov and Gumdrop, the author’s desire to fit all of her characters into a single narrative keeps Bloom from developing Lillian’s inner-life.
Consequently, many readers may be unsatisfied with Lillian’s single-minded motivation to reunite with her daughter. This desire for more psychological complexity may very well reflect a contemporary distrust of short novels. Despite its length, Away does provide epic pleasures by intimating experiences that lie outside the work. Bloom often performs this magic act in her short fiction: in A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, she writes stories that subtly allude to complex family histories without the baggage of excessive back-story. This same stylistic economy makes Away both modest and passionate. Like its heroine, the novel is possessed with a single all-consuming purpose: to tell a story that is lean and large.