A Cas­tle in Brooklyn

  • Review
By – June 21, 2023

A Cas­tle in Brook­lyn is a res­o­nant nov­el that tells its sto­ry slow­ly and incre­men­tal­ly, the way a wall is paint­ed and repaint­ed over time. Telling the sto­ry of a sim­ple Brook­lyn house and its inhab­i­tants through the years, Shirley Rus­sak Wach­tel rich­ly char­ac­ter­izes this mod­est struc­ture and the lives lived with­in its walls.

The home in ques­tion is at first only a yearn­ing in the heart of Jacob, a young Pol­ish Jew­ish boy hid­ing from the Nazis in the barn of a kind non-Jew­ish woman. While he tries to sur­vive under the straw, sur­round­ed by milk-cows and mice, Jacob dreams of the day he will build a home, his own home, one in which he is not only liv­ing safe­ly but strong­ly. He imag­ines a place as endur­ing as his bud­ding hero­ic self, capa­ble of sur­viv­ing anything:

There it was. Look­ing just like a gin­ger­bread from a fairy tale. 

Con­struct­ed of stur­dy wood­en beams, studs, cross­beams and

braces, the home was designed to with­stand even the most

tur­bu­lent of winters.

Jacob imag­ines that his future house will not only be strong, but also joy­ful, with but­tery yel­low walls” and, out­side, a porch lantern to cast a sin­gle gold­en ray of light on nights when the sky was moon­less.” His own dark life is illu­mi­nat­ed when Zal­man, a young man and bud­ding archi­tect, sud­den­ly joins him in the barn. 

After the war ends, Jacob, a new Amer­i­can immi­grant, mar­ries a woman named Esther. He invites Zal­man, by then like a broth­er to him, to share their cas­tle in Brook­lyn.” Even­tu­al­ly, Zal­man finds him­self tan­ta­lized not only by Esther’s out­ward appear­ance, but also by the sen­si­tive, lyri­cal nature of her soul. As Esther plays Debussy’s Clair de Lune” on the piano, Zal­man can­not help but feel moved. Tri­an­gles, par­tic­u­lar­ly roman­tic ones, are nev­er ful­ly sta­ble, and so Jacob’s dreams of sur­viv­ing tur­bu­lence — and main­tain­ing his friend­ship with Zal­man — are deeply shaken. 

Over the years, even after Zal­man leaves the cas­tle,” Jacob and Esther under­go a series of life-chang­ing events. The house changes, too: it becomes a haven for oth­er refugees, includ­ing a Japan­ese fam­i­ly whose father was interned in an Amer­i­can camp and a gag­gle of noisy South­ern­ers and their res­cued dogs. At the heart of the sto­ry lies not just the house, but the piano, the one on which Esther played Clair de Lune” — which lit­er­al­ly means moonlight.

These touch­es of illu­mi­na­tion, like a porch lantern shin­ing on the dark­est nights, attest to Wachtel’s abil­i­ty to weave togeth­er time and space, dis­as­ter and rebirth. Through all the ups and downs that occur over many decades, she man­ages to keep A Cas­tle in Brook­lyn glowing. 

Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford grad­u­ate, is the author of five books, includ­ing the acclaimed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” mem­oir, The Watch­mak­er’s Daugh­ter, and the nov­el, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Van­i­ty Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Peo­ple and The Chica­go Tri­bune, she is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a nov­el about the Zohar, the mys­ti­cal source of Jew­ish transcendence.

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