THE WAY BACK
By Gavriel Savit
“On a bright summer day in the year eighteen hundred and twelve (by the gentile reckoning), a girl left her mother’s house — the little house where she had been born — and went to the brambles on the far side of the forest to gather the small summer strawberries that grow in the shade.”
That opening sentence tells you what’s coming: The rhythms of an oft-told folktale. A Jewish perspective. Archetypal rather than nuanced characters. Long sentences. Lush descriptions.
“The Way Back” is a young adult novel about Bluma, the baker’s daughter, and Yehuda Leib, the angry boy without a father. Both live in the shtetl of Tupik and have encounters with Death that lead to a quest. Bluma (who lost her grandmother) has come into accidental possession of Death’s weapon, a razor-edged spoon laced with “tiny pine needles of crystalline frost.” She tries to throw it away, but it always comes back. She wants to be invisible to Death and the world’s other terrors. Yehuda Leib wants to learn what it feels like to have a father; he wants to capture the light that Death took from his father’s eyes and never be called a bastard again.
To fulfill their desires, the children travel to the Far Country, a spirit realm full of demons that Gavriel Savit has plucked from the Zohar and other Jewish mystical works. He excels at creepy imagery: There’s a tree made of bone, “its long, twiggy extremities clacking against one another in the breeze”; a stooped old woman “with hairy, twitching spiders instead of hands”; an Army of the Dead officer with slit-pupil eyes riding a steed “in an extreme state of decay, its bleached ribs exposed”; a wheelchair made of long, spun-out fingernails still attached to the hands of the person pushing it.
Savit (“Anna and the Swallow Man”) revels in the repetition common in oral tradition: We’re told that Death’s garb is “blacker than the night, blacker than the darkness hidden inside your eyes”; the demoness Lilith is “neither old nor young, short nor tall, plain nor beautiful”; whenever Death experiences human kindness, he feels a sensation “like sorrow, but then again, nothing like sorrow at all.”
The children tangle and bargain with various demons, visit a yeshiva beneath the Dead City and encounter the (human) wedding of their rebbe’s granddaughter. A wedding is a locus of sorcery, Lilith tells Bluma. “Two cannot become one and both remain without a little bit of magic.”
A finalist for the National Book Award, “The Way Back” has been compared to Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book.” But it also shares with Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth” a joy in language, wordplay and the mockery of bureaucrats; with S. Ansky’s “The Dybbuk” a focus on Jewish demons and the liminal power of weddings and cemeteries; and with the Orpheus myth a warning about the need for silence in the dominion of the dead. (Savit gives the musical “Hadestown” a shout-out in the acknowledgments.)
“The Way Back” is not for every reader: It’s meandering and languorously paced, like a story told over the course of many cold winter nights. Description and atmosphere, not tight plot or nuanced characterization, are its strengths. Perhaps fittingly, given its title, the second half of the novel — the trip back from the House of the Dead — has more narrative momentum and suspense than the first half. And in what may be a nonstarter for sensitive souls, a cat in a sack is slammed repeatedly against a wall. (Granted, it’s a demoness in cat form.) As a meditation on loss, fear and anger, though, “The Way Back” feels as timeless as a fairy tale.