The Book of Tobias

Sylvie Germain, Author, Christine Donougher, Translator Dedalus, $12.99 (196p) ISBN 978-1-873982-39-6
Inspired by the apocryphal biblical book of Tobit, prolific French author Germain (The Book of Nights, etc.) here offers a solemn, atmospheric tale of family loss and redemption set in the provincial Poitevin Marais region of France. For nearly 100 years, Grandmother Deborah, a Jewish migr from Poland, has witnessed the death or disappearance of her relatives, one by one. At the novel's outset, a riding accident decapitates Anna, the wife of Deborah's grandson, Theodore; the disappearance of her severed head plunges Theodore into madness and poverty. After Deborah's death, Theodore and Anna's son, Tobias, is sent to Bordeaux to collect some money owed to Theodore. True to the biblical tale, Tobias meets a modern-day incarnation of the archangel Raphael, an attractive androgyne, and together they embark on a meandering mission. On the way, Tobias falls in love with his ill-starred cousin Sara, whose previous seven suitors have all died mysteriously. Instructed by Raphael, Tobias is able to overcome the curse. Although the plot is stilted--each chapter is preceded by its biblical epigraph, and the novel seems to be following instructions--one reads Germain for the epic power of her prose. The story of Grandmother Deborah's religious anguish is an especially powerful reminder of the weighty, relentless course of history. A peasant woman so overcome with sadness at the death of her family members that she is unable to cry, she begins to confuse the lamb of the Christian altar with the smiling goat Mejdele from her childhood home: ""Only that smile succeeded in relieving the burden of tears gathered inside her."" (Aug.) FYI: Donougher's translation of The Book of Nights won the TLS Scott Moncrieff Prize for best translation in 1992.
Reviewed on: 07/24/2000
Release date: 07/01/2000
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