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Novel of South African anti-Semitism a gem
Having been a book editor in New York and Toronto for most of her adult life, Lily Poritz Miller must have learned the rule about first novels very well: write what you know. And having been raised in South Africa for the first 15 years of her life, during the 1930s and 1940s when Jewish immigration added to and further complicated the layered racism of that country, she must have known a lot to base that first novel on.
The only mystery is why it took so long to complete—more than six decades after the events depicted in In a Pale Blue Light.
Perhaps Miller needed the time to work out how to present it in fiction. In any case, her story of a young Jewish girl in post-war South Africa is a well polished gem.
Libka Hoffman enters adolescence trying to find her way in a diversely divided society, with the Boers (descendants of European settlers) exploiting the blacks and distrusting the Jews, the Jews using the blacks, the well-to-do Jews looking down on the less fortunate Jews—and almost everyone seemingly down on Libka for her tolerant, questioning attitude.
Her mensch of a father has just died and her ineffectual mother lives in dreams of the Ukrainian shetl from where they emigrated and in fears of what happened to the rest of her family who didn’t escape Hitler. Libka’s Jewish schoolmates disdain her because she doesn’t share their privileged attitudes. Her brother avoids her because he’s trying to impress the snobbish girls. The only person she can talk to is Maputo, a black man befriended by her late father, and the man’s attempt to protect her family from attack leads to his own banishment from her life.
Yet, however bleak Libka’s existence becomes, In a Pale Blue Light seldom despairs. In a less nuanced novel, you’d say our heroine has spunk, an indomitable spirit. And help comes from some surprising quarters, bringing bittersweet redemption for the Hoffman family.
Miller’s writing is what some people call poetic—but not in that flowery, metaphor-heavy style of Canadian poets-turned-novelists. Rather in stripped-down language, always choosing just the right word to convey complex, heartfelt drama without drawing attention to the language itself.
If the novel has one failing, it’s that the compelling tension falls off too completely in the last quarter. Otherwise, In a Pale Blue Light is a wonderfully realized story, in which we fully live through Libka Hoffman and her family’s experience in a land strange to both them and us, during a shameful era of world history.
Which somehow, after reading this novel, does not seem so long ago.