Judith Mok
  • Review
By – April 2, 2012

Maybe it is the unnamed nar­ra­tor, or the raw sen­su­al­i­ty of the char­ac­ters, or the glam­our of France and lack of it in Ire­land, or the steal­ing motif, or the naked truth” about love, but there is some­thing about Judith Mok’s nov­el, Gael, that makes it intriguing. 

At its core, the plot is sim­ple: a non­prac­tic­ing Jew­ish woman, mar­ried to a non-Jew­ish French aris­to­crat, falls in love with an indi­gent Irish-Catholic artist. Still, Mok doesn’t make it easy to read this nov­el. With abrupt shifts in nar­ra­tive voice, inter­mit­tent intru­sions of streams of con­scious­ness, and a tan­gled web­bing of past and present, she seduces the read­er into believ­ing that love can con­quer all. In the end, it cannot. 

Mok’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are stereo­typ­i­cal, but they work. She presents Loth, pro­nounced loathe,” as a Sven­gali-like char­ac­ter who hyp­no­tizes his wife with jew­els and cloth­ing. He is nei­ther evil nor an Israelite Hebrew, as George du Maurier’s Sven­gali is, but Loth is the hus­band who pushed [her] tal­ents and spoiled [her] tastes,” in much the same way as Sven­gali attempt­ed to dom­i­nate female per­form­ers. The nar­ra­tor is, after all, a vio­lin­ist. While Loth is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of French high soci­ety, it is Gael, the Irish lover, who is the exem­pli­fi­ca­tion of the sod­den under­class of Dublin. He is a crude con-artist who read­i­ly admits he will nev­er sup­port her,” and proud­ly con­tends he came from a neigh­bor­hood where steal­ing was the norm.” It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that he steals the narrator’s love, her mon­ey, and her lust for life. Nei­ther man is per­fect. It is their imper­fec­tions that mag­ne­tize her. 

Mov­ing back, forth, and in between France and Ire­land, Mok’s descrip­tions of place are lyri­cal yet jar­ring. San­tori­ni, a Greek island par­adise for the nar­ra­tor and Gael, now is described as a place of black beach­es and straight sea,” an island of burnt-out vol­ca­noes.” But, it is not until the nar­ra­tor real­izes that she had twice mar­ried men, mis­tak­ing the coun­try for the man and the man for the coun­try,” that Mok’s atten­tion to place becomes obvious. 

Ulti­mate­ly, the nar­ra­tor comes full cir­cle: she returns to France and to Loth. But, her return is not with­out the pro­found dis­cov­ery that you can hate the per­son you love.”

Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

Discussion Questions