The Canadian author Alison Pick’s novel Far to Go was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, one of the two or three most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world. That was seven years ago. To repurpose an old vaudeville punch line, “So what’s she done lately?” The answer is her complex, inspiring, and artful new novel Strangers With the Same Dream. It is set in 1921 in a kibbutz in what was then called the British Mandate in Palestine but is now part of the state of Israel.
In a telephone interview from her home in Toronto, Pick is quick to explain that writing the new book didn’t take up all those years, for in the period between the two novels she also completed her extraordinary memoir Between Gods, published in 2014. It was a startling revelation of how she discovered that her father and his family were Jewish.
“I was a 10-year-old kid on the playground” when an anti-Semite accused her of being a Jew. “I denied it,” she says, “because I had never heard that mentioned at home.” She had not been told that so many members of her father’s family, representing several generations, had perished in the Holocaust. It took years of patient lock-picking to get the gruesome facts out in the open. The result of her doing so was a serious battle with depression. What affected her even “more than hearing the stories was not having heard them” earlier.
Judaism is, of course, passed down matrilineally and Pick’s mother was Christian. That seems only to have increased the writer’s desire to learn about a second faith. An early novel, The Sweet Edge, had given her enough authority to apply for a travel grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. In all she went to Israel three times over a two-month period. “My Hebrew’s not good, so I needed a translator,” she says. “I was received warmly.” Her new book is set in 1921 because that was the year that the oldest continuing kibbutz (cooperative agrarian settlement) was founded. It was the largest one as well, and has kept an extensive archive. Most of the original members arrived as young people. “There was one man who began living there when he was 10. He was still alive when I was there but he’s since died.”
In 2009 (“when I was seven months pregnant”) she began studying under a rabbi and eventually converted to Judaism, though she says that her attraction to it is perhaps more cultural than religious. Strangers With the Same Dream is told in three sections, giving multiple viewpoints on the different characters’ ambitions and on the disagreements and disappointments that always seem to attend attempts at communal living. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British pledged to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East but only if Arabs were not subordinated. Pick is careful and fair-minded in how she treats the beginnings of the tension between the two cultures that we see every day on the news.
Most important of all, Strangers With the Same Dream is a finely crafted work of fiction. Pick is also a published poet. And it shows.
Alison Pick will read from Strangers With the Same Dream at the Jewish Community Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (November 25), as part of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival.