Books: The Dialect Of Garlic

A magical first novel about a vanished way of life

It is difficult to read The River Midnight (Scribner; 414 pages; $25), Lilian Nattel's genealogical fantasy of Jewish village life in 19th century Poland, without being reminded of Marc Chagall's romantic paintings: a couple floating over a small town; a midwife holding a newborn; and, of course, the famous green-faced fiddler hovering on a rooftop like a Macy's parade balloon.

Similar images emerge in Nattel's dreamscapes. Like most descendants of East European Jewry, Nattel has a knowledge of her ancestry only a few generations deep. Blaszka, then, is a fictional place where the Canadian author attempts to link emotionally and spiritually...

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