The North of God

  • Review
By – January 30, 2012

There are events so hor­ren­dous that one can only deal with them by not deal­ing with them, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugh­ter­house 5. In The North of God, Velvl is in a cat­tle car, wedged against a young woman, with her child sus­pend­ed between them. We know, of course, where they’re going. And so, it would seem, does Velvl. In order to keep from think­ing, he tells her the sto­ry of a boy from his long ago yeshi­va days, who vis­it­ed Sitra Achra, the oth­er side.’ But the tale is itself a frame, rem­i­nis­cent of matryosh­ka, Russ­ian dolls, nest­ed with­in each oth­er. At the cen­ter: life, death, dreams, masques, a (maybe) prophet… What is real? What is sin? Where is Hell? Is there Paradise? 

Steve Stern’s lit­tle mas­ter­piece calls up Jew­ish life in the Pale of Set­tle­ment, even as it dis­ap­pears. The images are extreme­ly well cho­sen, and work on the book’s many lev­els— in the midst of rever­ie, the appear­ance of a Russ­ian suc­cubus, or a Yid­dish expres­sion, reminds us where (and when) we are. With a sure hand, Steve Stern entices the read­er on a mer­ry romp, but under it all is ulti­mate evil…and true to the fairy tale-like for­mat, if not res­cue, there is redemption.

Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

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