The Ghosts of Rose Hill

  • Review
By – July 22, 2022

Ilana López is the daugh­ter of a Sephardic moth­er from Cuba and a non-Jew­ish Czech father. Both par­ents have fled com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ships and are rais­ing their daugh­ter in mul­ti­cul­tur­al Mia­mi. Yet even in this cos­mopoli­tan envi­ron­ment, Ilana feels unsure of who she is. Her career aspi­ra­tion as a vio­lin­ist is met with skep­ti­cism by a fam­i­ly more con­cerned with achiev­ing high scores on col­lege admis­sions exams. But when they send her to spend the sum­mer with her aunt, an artist liv­ing in Prague, Ilana finds her­self sub­merged in a dark and rich world of the Jew­ish past. R.M Romero’s ambi­tious verse nov­el explores how Ilana search­es this past to dis­cov­er who she is today.

Romero alludes to many aspects of Jew­ish folk­lore, pop­u­lar cul­ture, and clas­si­cal music in her var­ied metaphors. When Ilana arrives at her aunt’s home, she becomes attract­ed to the untend­ed tomb­stones in the local Jew­ish ceme­tery. They have been neglect­ed and mis­used, but she rec­og­nizes an oppor­tu­ni­ty in them to learn about the Jews who have been mar­gin­al­ized by the sur­round­ing dom­i­nant cul­ture. Mag­i­cal real­ism enters the sto­ry when she meets a ghost and falls in love. At the same time, a vod­ník (evil water spir­it), who both lit­er­al­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly feeds on the souls of the dead, becomes her neme­sis. The author also ver­bal­izes the ordi­nary anguish of teenagers, under­scor­ing Ilana’s frus­tra­tion that I’m not a piece of music/​too complicated/​to be read/​the way my parents/​believe I am.”

The book’s nar­ra­tive arc is as unusu­al as its eclec­tic poet­ic images. Chap­ters punc­tu­ate Ilana’s per­spec­tive with inter­ludes” that give the demon­ic char­ac­ter his own voice. She com­mu­ni­cates by text mes­sage with her friends in Mia­mi at the same time that she is drawn into a vor­tex of the dead, strug­gling to save from era­sure those who have per­ished. Her inter­ac­tions with these beings often have a vivid real­i­ty, as when she and a young com­pan­ion in the ceme­tery teach one anoth­er Yid­dish and Span­ish. At times, tran­si­tions seem abrupt, as in when Ilana’s mul­ti­ple con­cerns col­lide with one anoth­er in both her thoughts and actions. Read­ers who engage with the story’s com­plex­i­ties will ulti­mate­ly empathize with one of Ilana’s most seri­ous pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: what does it mean to be a Jew? Here, her images take shape with beau­ty and pre­ci­sion, as she con­sid­ers per­se­cu­tion, sur­vival, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and courage as com­po­nents of this great gift.

The chal­lenges fac­ing Jews of mixed cul­tur­al back­grounds have become a fer­tile ground for young adult nov­els. Romero offers a dis­tinc­tive approach, empha­siz­ing Ilana’s alien­ation from her family’s val­ues, much more than con­fu­sion about which side of her her­itage is more sig­nif­i­cant. Being Jew­ish is cen­tral from the begin­ning of the nov­el to the end, but only after liv­ing in two worlds does she ful­ly under­stand the impact of this fact: Any­one I ever love/​will have to hear/​my history.”

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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