Marjorie’s grandfather had secrets. Everyone has secrets, of course, but none quite like Grandpa Eli. Even after Eli’s death, those secrets could get people killed. This introduction makes Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses sound like a thriller. The novel is something quite different. Grandpa Eli’s secrets have to do with a centuries-old family curse, Jewish mysticism, and an angel. Feldman’s novel is an extraordinary book that had me reading well past my bedtime.
When they were children, Eli used to tell Marjorie and her sister, Holly, stories about a White Magician who saved his people over and over. The stories abruptly stopped when Marjorie was about 10 years old. Any questions were met with furious refusals to speak further. Years later, when The Angel of Losses picks up the narrative, Marjorie and Holly have grown apart. Marjorie is writing a doctoral dissertation on the Wandering Jew. Holly has converted to orthodox Judaism and has married a student of the Berukhim Penitents—a sect of orthodox Jewish mystics who wake at midnight to lament the diaspora. Two events jumpstart the narrative. Marjorie discovers her grandfather’s notebooks, where he recorded his stories. In this version, though, the White Magician is the White Rebbe. The other event is Holly’s pregnancy. Her son is born prematurely and seems to suffer from the same disease that has cropped up in family stories.
The notebooks send Marjorie straight to the nearest university library. (A move I heartily approve.) With the help of a librarian, Marjorie tracks down the White Rebbe. In a sense, she’s been preparing for this her whole life. At one point, she remarks, “Theory was killing literature, people said, but it had allowed me to see a while subterranean world: every text meant something profound, if you would only follow it into the dark” (63*). Marjorie’s academic quest takes on more significance as her nephew grows more and more ill. If the stories about the White Rebbe and the Angel of Losses are actually true, it might be possible to save his life by using the impossible: magic.
Marjorie’s narration is interrupted with Eli’s stories about the White Rebbe. Each one is more autobiographical than the last, losing the cadence and vocabulary of folklore. These stories aren’t just any tales; they are the magical history of the family that has been deliberately hidden for years to avoid the Angel of Losses’ curse. By the time we read the last one, Eli is speaking directly to his readers:
I am a librarian, charged with watching over a small but essential wing of an infinite collection, the very stories the White Rebbe labored to hide: not his magical tour, his domestic miracles and isolated wonders, but his biography, the man who lived so long he became inhuman, just as his enemy, the Angel of Losses, became a specter. (209)
The family curse is much more serious than anyone except Eli knows. I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about Jewish mysticism from The Angel of Losses, but Feldman does an incredible job of elevating an already heart-rending story into an epic struggle of an ancient wrong.
There are a few points in the novel where I felt lost in what Marjorie describes as “Metaphors and symbols and devices. Russian fairy tales and Jewish legends, evolving side by side, fragments Grandpa absorbed during his secret childhood on the other side of the world” (96-97). I’m not Jewish and everything I’ve picked up about the history and theology was inadvertently gained. But perhaps that’s the point. We as a reader are just as lost in the welter of folklore and magic and religion as Marjorie is, until it all comes together in a series of epiphanies near the end of the book.
The Angel of Losses captured me so completely that I was tempted to start jotting down my thoughts about it last night, even though it was well past midnight. I suspect I have a touch of book hangover even now.
* Quotes are from the 2014 hardcover edition by Ecco.