Fiction

Mourning and Celebration

Mourning And Celebration
K. David Brody

CreateSpace
$18
paper
266pp
978-1-448682-38-6

Really good historical fiction is needed for so many reasons: to help us understand how people made choices based on social norms that are now considered heinous, to empathize with people whose lives were completely different from our own, and to force us to reflect on whether past inequalities have been completely dismantled. But this enlightenment, sympathy, and reflection can only be achieved when the historical fiction is good: when it is written in such an emotionally engaging and honest way that the only place the reader can go is dead ahead, into the mind and heart of the character. Unfortunately, Mourning and Celebration by K. David Brody lacks these qualities.

Mourning and Celebration, a self-published debut novel by Brody, tells the story of Yankl Bradawka, an 18-year-old Orthodox Jew living in a small village in Poland in the nineteenth century. Yankl is a student of the Talmud and a talented violinist who develops romantic feelings
for his study partner, Velvel. Velvel returns his feelings and the two boys start meeting in the woods near their village to talk, for Velvel
to hear Yankl play the violin, and to share tender, forbiddenkisses. Village life being what it is, however, the two are eventually discovered and discreetly reported to the rabbi, who must decide what to do about their “abominable” behaviour.

Frustratingly, Mourning and Celebration never gives readers the opportunity to really engage emotionally with Yankl (or any of the
characters). This deprives the reader of the satisfying journey of feeling what Yankl feels – the fear of discovery, the bliss of finding one’s
beschert, the guilt of disappointing family. The third-person omniscient point-of-view is partly to blame (it gives the story a detached feeling),
but mainly the downfall is that the narrator always tells what Yankl (and the other characters) feels, but never shows these feelings. Readers
are not provided with scenes that allow them to fill in the space of what is not said with their own recognition and understanding. This is an immense shame because gay historical fiction is scarce and the emotional insights it can provide are necessary.

Some of the thoughts and feelings “told” to the reader seem unlikely. How is it possible that Yankl, who grew up in a society that believed homosexuality to be an abominable sin, and who had no role models to contradict this belief, is so assured that his own feelings are not sinful? When Yankl has his first sexual experience – a furtive exchange of hand jobs with a friend of his father who is visiting from out of town – Yankl states that “he could no more think of it as a sin, an ‘abomination’, than the act of eating.” Does he not feel any moral turmoil, especially as a religious scholar?

Other characters also have moments that are suspiciously forward-thinking. For example, when Yankl’s mother finds a love letter written to Yankl from Velvel, she is so touched that she “wonders whether, at another time and in another place, such a union would ever be permitted.”

Bizarrely, the author repeatedly inserts himself into the story. The novel is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that are not about Yankl or his village but about the author, K. David Brody, his life experiences and his creative process. Throughout the book, chapters conclude with “debrief” conversations between Yankl and K. David Brody, in which the author relates the fictional character’s experiences back to his own life as a gay Orthodox Jew born in the U.K. and now living in Montreal. The practice begs the question: is this ongoing commentary from the author for our benefit or for his? Would the author have been happier to tell us the true story of his own mournings and celebrations? mRb

Sarah Lolley is the 2017 CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence. She writes essays, crime fiction, and children’s literature, and is an avid fan of cryptic crosswords.

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