A call to open hearts

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore TRANS­GEN­DER

Cen­tury, £16.99

Re­viewed by Mon­ica Porter

IWELL RE­MEM­BER Si­mon Se­bag Mon­te­fiore from our briefly over­lap­ping time as col­leagues at the Daily Mail in the 1990s. Af­fa­ble and pol­ished, he had a fix­a­tion with all things Rus­sian, and his shtick (which amused us all in the of­fice) was to lope around in a Red Army great­coat. In the years since then, he has emerged as an au­thor­i­ta­tive, award-win­ning his­to­rian, and the bi­og­ra­pher of Stalin. And, as well as his en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with Rus­sian his­tory, this scion of an il­lus­tri­ous Bri­tish Sephardi fam­ily (his great-great-un­cle was the fi­nancier and phi­lan­thropist Sir Moses Mon­te­fiore) is equally en­gaged by his Jewish roots. He com­bines the two in Red Sky at Noon, the fi­nal novel in his Mos­cow Tril­ogy.

The story is set dur­ing sum­mer 1942, when Hitler launched his “Case Blue” of­fen­sive across Ukraine and the plains of south­ern Rus­sia to­wards the Don and Volga rivers, and on to­wards the prize of Stal­in­grad.

As tanks were in short sup­ply, both the Ger­man and Soviet sides de­ployed cav­al­ries in­stead. With the Sovi­ets suf­fer­ing heavy losses, Stalin called upon an ad­di­tional hu­man re­source, the wretched and ex­pend­able pris­on­ers of the gu­lags, to form pe­nal bat­tal­ions (called shtraf- bats). They could “win re­demp­tion” by spilling blood — their own as well as the en­emy’s — for the Mother­land.

One such pris­oner is the Jewish writer Benya Golden, serv­ing 25 years af­ter be­ing wrongly con­victed of trea­son. He joins a pe­nal cav­alry unit made up of as­sorted de­vi­ous crim­i­nals and Cos­sacks. In a dra­matic bat­tle, they charge head­long with sabres drawn into the Ital­ian cav­alry, who have joined their Ger­man al­lies in the of­fen­sive.

Benya is among the hand­ful who sur­vive the mas­sacre of his shtraf­bat. Wounded and caught be­hind en­emy lines, he is in dan­ger from all sides — from the Wehrma­cht and their Axis al­lies; from the Sovi­ets who might ex­e­cute him for “de­ser­tion”; and from the SS, who, to­gether with an­ti­semitic Rus­sian de­fec­tors, are slaugh­ter­ing Jews as they find them.

Luck­ily for Benya, he is cared for by an Ital­ian nurse, the beau­teous Fabi­ana. The pair fall in love and at­tempt to flee the tur­moil to­gether on horseback across the scorch­ing plains, east­wards to the Don and pos­si­ble sal­va­tion.

The book’s his­tor­i­cal back­ground is in­trigu­ing and, if I found the fic­tional love story a tad gushy, pre­fer­ring my his­tory as straight non-fic­tion, Si­mon has more than earned his stripes in that de­part­ment, and if he wants to go a lit­tle Tol­stoyan (in its fic­tional im­pli­ca­tions) that’s fine by me.

Mon­ica Porter is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and author. Se­bag Mon­te­fiore: equally en­gaged with Rus­sian his­tory and Jewish roots

THIS IS How It Al­ways Is by Lau­rie Frankel (Head­line £16.99) is a brave, gen­er­ous and au­da­cious novel, which tack­les the im­pact on a fam­ily com­ing to terms with hav­ing a trans­gen­der child. The story is told with great skill, hu­mour and ten­der­ness and presents chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions and com­pli­cated fam­ily dy­nam­ics with frank­ness and hu­man­ity.

It is about a fam­ily from Wis­con­sin who are forced to move states when their five-year old son’s safety is threat­ened be­cause he dresses and clearly iden­ti­fies as a girl. Once set­tled in Seat­tle, it be­comes easier not to men­tion that “Poppy” used to be a boy, so the fam­ily be­comes bur­dened with a se­cret that im­pacts dif­fer­ently on each of them.

The novel fol­lows Poppy to the age of 10, be­fore pu­berty starts, but in­cludes ques­tions about hor­mone treat­ment and the pos­si­bil­ity of surgery. Poppy has four fiercely pro­tec­tive broth­ers who are each, deeply af­fected by her trans­for­ma­tion. Roo, the el­dest, feels re­sent­ful at the at­ten­tion Poppy re­ceives and starts act­ing up.

The par­ents, Rosie and Penn, are sup­port­ive of Poppy’s choices, though they deal with the is­sue of trans­gen­der in dif­fer­ent ways. Rosie, a doc­tor, looks for clin­i­cal an­swers, while Penn, a writer and stay-at-home dad, a lit­tle un­re­al­is­ti­cally, wants to cre­ate a “fairy­tale” end­ing for his daugh­ter.

Lau­rie Frankel is her­self the par­ent of a trans­gen­der child, though the fam­ily never had to hide their daugh­ter’s gen­der his­tory.

Nor were they sub­jected to re­jec­tion or prej­u­dice as her imag­ined fam­ily are. But she was per­suaded by her pub­lish­ers that her novel needed more plot and con­flict. And, per­haps as a re­sult, there are too many char­ac­ters, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult, for ex­am­ple, to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween the four older boys. Over­all, how­ever, the book is well­con­structed and cer­tainly read­able.

Frankel says par­ent­ing a trans­gen­der child has taught her to keep an open mind about what the fu­ture holds. This is prob­a­bly a good les­son for all par­ents. In an in­ter­view with the New Zealand Her­ald, Frankel said: “I hope the trans­gen­der as­pect serves as a metaphor for any­thing that’s not quite the norm… We need to love more, tol­er­ate more and open our hearts more be­cause that’s what will make the world a bet­ter place”. This is Frankel’s third novel and I found it ten­der, mov­ing, and ed­u­ca­tional. SIPORA LEVY


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