Lilycentrism

Ten Thousand Lovers

By Edward R. Smith

A review of Ten Thousand Lovers by Edeet Ravel

Published on April 1, 2003

Ten Thousand Lovers
Edeet Ravel

McArthur & Company
$24.95
paper
373pp
0-7553-03709

Lily, a young Canadian studying linguistics in Jerusalem, falls in love and conceives a child with Ami, who interrogates Palestinians and is extremely good at it. This troubles Lily until she’s satisfied that Ami is unique among his colleagues in always persuading, never forcing. How he manages this is gradually revealed, along with his disaffection from, and eventual traumatic break with, his employers.

Ten Thousand Lovers, Edeet Ravel’s first novel, is a hybrid of the romance and the book-with-a-purpose. As far as the purpose goes, it may be enough that the author condemns an injustice; though you’d think her sympathy for Palestinians would translate into more substantial things for her only Arab character to say. The romance does less well thanks to a serious rookie mistake – the relentless first-person perspective. Lily dryly narrates weekend drives and conversations with Ami and wanderings of her own, but sees nothing of his workplace because logically she can’t be there. The result is a story of interrogation practices uncluttered by interrogation scenes. Instead, everything we learn of the business is expounded over many pages, with Lily asking the right questions and Ami editorializing.

In this he is distinctly obliging, but given the Lily-centric point of view, is also so dependent that when his heroic end arrives (offstage: the details briefly told Lily, her reaction given at length) it seems only natural that he’s seeded her and died, a job well done. It’s worth noting that Lily’s body is extremely well described thanks to Ami, who is not returned the favour. Of him we learn that he has a beautiful smile and is eight inches taller than her. Beyond this we are repeatedly told he is charming. The pregnant Lily is identified with the Virgin Mary by herself and two obliging friends. You’d like to think she’s joking, but it’s only an extreme example of Ravel’s unblushing way with biblical parallels.

We learn much about Lily – the clothes she wears, the gifts she receives – but we aren’t always sure why. She’s angry or upset, and the emotions surprise us because the situation hasn’t properly set them up. Adjectives like “wonderful” and “mesmerizing” stand in for the wonderful or mesmering thing that is not described. We are told everyone laughed, but not what the joke was. The play Ami writes in defiance of the system remains largely a mystery, but we are told it’s “superb,” was banned, and won seven prizes. The author appears to be drawing on a personal kitty of responses. For herself it’s enough to record the signifiers to which the emotion is pre-attached; for us it’s as if she’s listening to music inside her head, and all we hear is her fingers drumming.

Ravel seems most comfortable within the two commentaries that periodically break up the narrative: on the Bible as ethics, and on Hebrew ambiguities. She appears to have a mission to rescue the book and the language from their makers. A worthy cause, no doubt, but this is all barely novelized thought, floating somewhere above the action. Whole chunks of the story seem connected only to something outside itself: Lily’s parents who don’t appear but are often recalled as not caring enough about her, minor characters who flit on and off the stage without consequence.

Ami’s highly effective interrogatory methods come down to being a good listener, sharing meals with the prisoners, generally drawing them out of themselves. Maybe they’ll share a joint, too. It seems meant as some kind of prescription, but you feel the Arab-Israeli problem is more complex than that. Perhaps the author would have fared better with a less personally involving subject. mRb

Edward R. Smith is an Ottawa editor.

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