Fervour by Toby Lloyd

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The devout Jewish Rosenthal family implodes following the death of Yosef, a Holocaust survivor. Each of the three Rosenthal children, Gideon, Elsie and Tovyah, has a last moment with their grandfather; and the impact on each of their lives is profound. Gideon becomes cynical and detached, Tovyah confronts the horror of human beings judging each other, and Elsie, the highly intelligent girl who learned at Yosef’s elbow and eavesdropped his conversation on the stairs, is overcome by the sense that her grandfather’s spirit is not at rest because his family do not honour his wish to be cremated, rather than have the traditional burial.

Yosef declares that he did not survive the Holocaust, he got out. It is later in the book that we discover the reason he is haunted by the ghost of a little boy, Ariel, and the terrible secret that lies behind his desire for his body to be destroyed by flames. The young Elsie takes on his burden, and her obsession with dark stories leads her family to believe her to be mentally disturbed. The family trauma is compounded by formidable family matriarch, Hannah’s drive to expose their life stories in print, first the life of Yosef, and then that of her daughter Elsie. The fallout for Elsie of having her famous journalist mother publish her story is horrendous.

It is a complex story of a dysfunctional family mainly told by narrator Kate, a student friend of Tovyah, and it interweaves themes of religion, politics, spiritualism, and mental health. There is a lot that the reader could go back to reread, and plenty to generate a book group discussion. Its appeal would be for the more mature reader interested in family dynamics and questions of religion and spiritual beliefs. It makes for an impressive debut novel.

Themes: Holocaust, Jewish religion, Tanakh, Family dysfunction, Mental health, Trauma.

Helen Eddy