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.”