Review of Margot Singer’s The Pale of Settlement

Erika Dreifus

University of Georgia Press, $24.95 (hardcover)

I should confess at the outset that some of my enthusiasm for Margot Singer’s Flannery O’Connor-prizewinning collection of linked stories, The Pale of Settlement, stems from a deep sense of connection: I identify with Singer’s protagonist, Susan Stern, a Jewish-American woman who is a grandchild, on her father’s side, of German Jews who fled their native land in the late 1930s, and who has matrilineal roots in Eastern Europe, in that old “Pale of Settlement.”

But when my family members left Europe they came to the United States; Susan’s went to Palestine. Israel-and Susan’s connection to it as the American-born daughter of Israelis-is central to this book: Israel is setting, character, conflict, and theme, all wrapped together. And if the larger issues that frame these nine stories-history, memory, identity, family-are questions that have always preoccupied me, I suspect that others share these obsessions and will become as immersed in Singer’s elegantly-constructed stories as I have.

One of the book’s most striking aspects is the extent to which the fictional narrative is tied to moments in recent history. The first story, “Helicopter Days,” begins in Israel during the 1982 war with Lebanon; the story moves forward to Susan’s grandfather’s death “one month after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion in Kuwait.” As the book progresses, time moves forward too, to the post-9/11 world and to the endless violence cycle spawned by the al-Aqsa Intifada that Susan, a journalist, reads about on the wire and must grapple with at her desk, and in her heart.

Susan is indisputably at the book’s center, yet the stories unfold equally powerfully through other characters. In part, Singer accomplishes this through an artful shifting of narrators, time, and settings. In “Lila’s Story,” for example, we are privy to both Susan’s thoughts when she visits Haifa for the first time since her grandmother Lila’s death in 1997, and to what appear to be Lila’s memories and images of the escape from Europe and early years in Palestine.

Lila’s story itself alternates between her own voice (“I got pregnant after we came to Palestine, yes. But your grandfather did not want another child.”) and more enigmatic narration-Susan’s, almost certainly-as in these lines describing Lila’s initial encounter with a man not her husband, in 1947: “I want to say that this is where it happens, right here on Panorama Street, under the rustling Carmel pines, in the shadow of what is now this hotel . . . I want to say that he’s a socialist who left Odessa after the First World War, making him almost an old-timer here. I want to call him Lev. So rewind that last scene just a bit. Before the dogs grow impatient and she turns to leave.” The backdrop is smoke; refineries have been sabotaged just five days earlier (remember, this is 1947). “Maybe nothing happens” just then, the narrator admits, “but I want to believe it does. I want to believe that desire rises out of smoke and ruin, out of loneliness and loss. I want to believe that there are infinite cultivars of love.”

In “Deir Yassin,” which similarly has Susan sharing the narrative stage-this time with her maternal uncles-Singer moves not only from character to character but also between prose and poetry, again with an emphasis on memory.

What Zalman Remembered

What Zalman remembered many years later was
a thin disk of sun burning through the ashen sky
the wind out of the Judean hills hissing through the pines
the metallic taste of fear like blood in his mouth
a woman pouring coffee in the cold static time before
the fighting began, talking about the Jews murdered
at Gush Etzion, the thirty-five martyrs of the Lamed-Heh.
The woman said, You give those Arabs something
they’ll remember this time.
Zalman remembered the loudspeaker truck
sent to warn the villagers, stuck in a rut
blaring like Cassandra into the flat blank dawn
Evacuate! Evacuate!
but nobody heard.
He remembered low stone houses chickens children Arabs dust
machine gun fire an exploding grenade the boom
of the two-inch mortar sent by the Palmach when the fighting
    turned bad
the smell of burning the shouting the screams
a boy no more than nine or ten hurling a homemade bomb
an old man cowering, knock-kneed, dressed in a woman’s clothes.
Later, witnesses said the Jewish fighters’ eyes were glazed as if in
but Zalman doesn’t remember any ecstasy but fear.
Pain, of course, was the one thing that evaded memory-
he remembered only the sensation of falling and later great thirst.
The bullet nicked the femur of his left leg
but missed the artery; they gave it to him afterward
in a paper bag. A trophy or a souvenir.
The only thing that still remained
was the scar on the outside of his left thigh,
a pink shiny patch like a small, exploded star.

It’s not difficult to see why this exceptional book won one of short
fiction’s most prestigious prizes. This reader, for one, is thrilled
that additional recognition has already followed its publication:
Singer and her book have also won the 2008 Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize
for Emerging Writers and, most recently, the Reform Judaism Prize for
Jewish Fiction. Here’s hoping that still more honors—and an
ever-increasing readership—come their way.

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