I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. I learned fairly early on in my adult life that I don’t necessarily connect with the characters well, and in general, the genre is a little too slow-paced for my tastes. But someone from a Jewish books group on Facebook recommended House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon (Atria Books, 2020), and it sounded fascinating. I’ve also had good experiences with some Jewish literary fiction, so I decided to give this one a try – and it fit a category for the 2023 Popsugar Reading Challenge of a historical fiction book. Double win!
On a reluctant visit to his birthplace of Amsterdam, Israeli author Yoel Blum discovers familiar faces in a video at the local Jewish museum: his mother, his sister, and…a baby who isn’t him. A return trip to Amsterdam, this time without his wife but with a plan to stay much longer, sets him on the path to figuring out the mystery of that video so he can both understand and also base his next novel on it.
The story of Yoel’s past unfolds slowly, the story running parallel to his own, occasionally in the same paragraph (which sounds like it would be confusing, but it’s really not. It works well, in a way I found surprising for me, since literary fiction usually isn’t my jam). The struggle of his parents to adapt to the quickly changing situation in both Europe as a whole and Amsterdam, where everything was supposed to be safe; the increasing dangers; the food shortages; the disappearance of his father; the arguments with friends and neighbors; the disappearances of so many people around them, all terrifying and horrible. Yoel’s knowledge increases bit by bit as he gets to know the city of his birth, and he develops a new understanding of not only his childhood, but his relationship with his mother, his wife, and even his grandchildren as the truth of his path unfolds.
This worked really, really well for me. It’s not entirely clear as to what parts of the 1940’s-narrative are fiction and what are based on what Yoel is learning about his past, but the story comes together almost seamlessly, blending expertly with Yoel’s present fact-finding discovery trip. It’s tense, to be sure, and there’s a mystery that isn’t too difficult to figure out, but it’s emotional and devastating all the same. Yoel’s growth as a writer, a husband, a parent, and grandparent is gentle over the course of the novel, culminating in some tender scenes at the end of the book, leaving me wishing I could stick around and see more of not only how his life changes upon his return to Israel, but how this new book of his is received by his fans.
I’m really glad I took the chance on this book. I’ve gotten such great suggestions from my Jewish book group, and this was no exception.