First Fiction Fridays: The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel

June 26, 2015

The Mystics of Mile End is not just a family saga, but a neighbourhood saga. It’s set in Montreal’s Mile End, a storied part of the city (where you’ll find the fantastic Drawn and Quarterly bookstore!) that’s home to a curious combination of hipsters and Hasidic Jews. Sigal Samuel draws us into that sometimes rather secretive Jewish community through the Meyer family: David, a professor of religion, and his two children Samara and Lev.

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What:

The Mystics of Mile End (Freehand Books, 2015)

Who:

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently a writer and editor for the Jewish Daily Forward, she has also written for The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and The Walrus. Her six plays have been produced from Vancouver to New York. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Why you need to read this now:

The Mystics of Mile End is not just a family saga, but a neighbourhood saga. It’s set in Montreal’s Mile End, a storied part of the city (where you’ll find the fantastic Drawn and Quarterly bookstore!) that’s home to a curious combination of hipsters and Hasidic Jews. Sigal Samuel draws us into that sometimes rather secretive Jewish community through the Meyer family: David, a professor of religion, and his two children Samara and Lev.

The Meyers are haunted by secrets and loss – the things that they never dare speak out loud, like the random death of David’s wife years earlier. Each member of the family is drawn to and pushed away from religion, in extremes. They each develop a fascination with the Tree of Life, which in Jewish mysticism is what God used to create the universe out of nothing. Climbing the Tree of Life is somewhat akin to achieving spiritual enlightenment, but it’s also extraordinarily dangerous, putting the climber at risk of losing themselves entirely.

The novel is divided into four sections, each with an entirely different voice and style. First we’re introduced to eleven-year-old Lev, who deserves a place in the hall of fame of winning child narrators. He’s precocious yet naïve, badly wanting to look out for his family (and set his single dad up with his Grade Five teacher). Lev forges an unlikely friendship with Mr. Katz, the crazy neighbour down the street who is building a tree out of toilet paper rolls and dental floss (yes, a re-creation of the Tree of Life).

Next we meet David, who becomes convinced that his heart is whispering divine secrets – which is rather inconvenient since he has been an atheist for several years now. His spiritual quest is very much at odds with his desire for reason and rationality, and he grapples with that while considering his own role as a father.

The next section is narrated by Samara, who abruptly denounced religion immediately after her bat mitzvah. A decade later, she lives with her girlfriend and is nearing the end of her university career at McGill – when she unexpectedly finds herself trying to make sense of her father’s obsession with the Tree of Life.

And the fourth and final section is narrated not by a member of the Meyer family, but appropriately by the quirky Mile End neighbourhood itself. This allows the book’s supporting characters to shine, including Alex, Lev’s best friend, who looks not to the heavens of religion but the stars of science for life’s answers, and Mr. Chaim Glassman, a Holocaust survivor who lives next door to the Meyers, who just might be the only person who can save the Meyers before it’s too late.

What others are saying about The Mystics of Mile End:

Ayelet Tsabari, who just won the Sami Rohr Prize for The Best Place Earth, says that The Mystics of Mile End is “brimming with magic and mystery.” And the Winnipeg Review writes that “it is no small achievement that Samuel makes mysticism touchable.”


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