Bar­ren Island: A Novel

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

Can you imag­ine mak­ing a life in the shad­ow of a ren­der­ing plant, a place where the stench of rot­ting horse car­cass­es and relat­ed ani­mal decay is ever present — a place iso­lat­ed from the Brook­lyn shore, though reg­u­lar­ly vis­it­ed by barges bring­ing an unend­ing sup­ply of dis­in­te­grat­ing remains for the glue fac­to­ry? Such is Bar­ren Shoals, which, like the neigh­bor­ing Bar­ren Island, is a last resort for poor immi­grant families.

Zoref’s nar­ra­tor, eighty-year-old Mar­ta Eisen­stein Lane, was born and raised in this repug­nant place. Through Mar­ta, the author traces the life of a neglect­ed, impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ty that is dis­tanced in every way from the Amer­i­can Dream. Indeed, a cri­tique of that dream is one lev­el at which this excep­tion­al and sur­pris­ing nov­el operates.

There are many oth­er lev­els. Zoref’s book is tru­ly an his­tor­i­cal nov­el, tak­ing us through the after­math of World War I, the brief epoch of good times for many that fol­lowed, and the crush­ing Depres­sion even­tu­al­ly to be relieved by the dawn­ing of World War II. She explores how peo­ple out­side of the main­stream receive news and process it: news about gov­ern­ment pro­grams, about the union­iza­tion of labor, and about the var­i­ous utopi­an isms” for redis­trib­ut­ing pow­er and wealth.

The heart of the nov­el cov­ers Marta’s life from the age of about sev­en through her high school grad­u­a­tion and her refusal to pur­sue an oppor­tu­ni­ty to enter Hunter Col­lege. It focus­es on the Eisen­stein fam­i­ly and oth­er immi­grant fam­i­lies (Greeks, Ital­ians, etc.), reveal­ing the hard­ships of their lives and the pow­er of their pas­sions. Its large cast of mem­o­rable char­ac­ters includes Marta’s moth­er and broth­er, her best friend Sophia, and her teacher — the wise, tal­ent­ed, and effec­tive Miss Finn.

Bar­ren Island boils with moral issues, with the aging of par­ents and the mat­u­ra­tion of chil­dren, with romance, humil­i­a­tion, long­ing, and des­per­a­tion. Where do des­per­ate peo­ple find hope? Can the hor­rors of their vic­tim­iza­tion be relieved by watch­ing the grace­ful scav­eng­ing of beau­ti­ful birds? No, too many of the Bar­ren Shoals res­i­dents are them­selves scavengers.

The build­ing of a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den is a hope­ful sign, indi­cat­ing that, with dili­gence and appli­ca­tion, some­thing can come of noth­ing. A less encour­ag­ing thread involves Mr. Eisenstein’s fre­quent trips to the HIAS office in a futile attempt to bring threat­ened rel­a­tives from Hitler’s Europe to the Unit­ed States.

Bar­ren Island is a bril­liant com­ing-of-age nov­el; Marta’s por­trait of her youth is informed by the dis­tance she has trav­eled and the expe­ri­ences from which she has learned. And the book is also much more. Zoref takes read­ers to places they have not been or even heard of before — places that might be close geo­graph­i­cal­ly, but remain dis­tant in most oth­er ways. The book is a grand tes­ti­mo­ny to the human spir­it and a weighty reminder of the con­se­quences of neglect.

This book received the 2017 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Debut Fic­tion, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Writ­ers and Writ­ing Pro­grams’ (AWP) Award for the Nov­el and was longlist­ed for the Nation­al Book Award in Fic­tion. Zoref’s nar­ra­tive is so beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, so rich­ly per­cep­tive, and so pol­ished that it will sure­ly be giv­en many more accolades.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions