Religion, tradition and the longing for home
Fiction: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, Ruth Gilligan, Atlantic Books, hdbk, 336 pages, €16.99
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is the fourth novel from Dublin-born writer Ruth Gilligan. Through the gradually interweaving tales of Ruth, Shem and Aisling, this novel tells the story of the Jewish experience in Ireland, from the beginning of the 20th Century to now. It's a story of the search for identity, the longing for a place to call home and the significance of religion and tradition in one's life.
We begin with Ruth, whose family decided in 1901 to emigrate from Lithuania to the US, but accidentally disembarked in Cork and made their lives there. Ruth grows up desperately seeking her creative father's approval and feels she must always compensate for her apparent lack of imagination. In Cork, they are treated as outsiders and we see how much searching for a place to call home shapes her. Ruth adapts to Irish life but no matter how enthusiastic her efforts, she is never allowed to feel quite like a native, either with the Irish or the Jewish community.
Shem arrives in the Montague House mental institution aged 18. It's 1958 and he's been sent here after refusing to speak a word since his disastrous bar mitzvah. He is immediately singled out because of his religion and placed with the only other resident Jew, an elderly man named Alf. Though Shem cannot use words to communicate, he can write, and he and Alf eventually bond and find a purpose through a shared secret storytelling.
In present day, Aisling is a writer who moved from Dublin to London to find herself and is now being forced to question her religious identity. When her boyfriend asks her to convert from Catholicism to Judaism for him, she must ask herself how big a part religion plays in her identity and exactly how much she is willing to change. Or how much she is willing to lose. Though she is curious about, and fascinated by, the Jewish traditions and way of life, she is comforted by the Catholic conventions which she associates with her cushy Dalkey home and family.
There are several elements running through the three stories. The importance of storytelling - the recollection, invention and sharing of stories - plays a large part in all three of the character's lives. The feeling of misplacement and the longing for sanctuary is always present. All three characters are, in some ways, fish out of water, just like the early Jewish immigrants in Ireland. They are all struggling to find their place in the world while feeling slightly alien and striving to hold on to what makes them themselves. Each story asks how much of our identity is wrapped up in the need to feel at home - at home in a place, a relationship or with ourselves.
The history of the Jewish population of Ireland is truly fascinating and has clearly been very well researched for this novel. Tidbits from both Jewish and Irish cultures, folklore and attitudes are introduced in a playful, interesting way.
Towards the end, the misunderstandings upon which a lot of the plot is based feel a bit tenuous and the links between the stories were a little strained at times. This leads to an ending which is somewhat unsatisfying.
It is, however, immensely readable and was written with great flair, with dialogue and trains of thought that are authentic and vivid.
This is a very enjoyable novel and although unlikely to stay on your mind for years to come, it would make for a great holiday read.