Of course, there is nothing remarkable about the process, this much at least she knows. Because we do it to ourselves all the time— turn our lives into a story— anything to try to keep the chaos of the self in check.
Three separate narratives presented with intricate detail and knitted together showcase the history of Jewish people in Ireland. One immigrant family from Lithuania struggles to find their place in Cork when they mistakenly disembarked their ship bound ultimately for New York. One young man, silenced in an attempt to protect his mother’s secret out of loyalty and love finds solace in the story of another. One young Irish woman living in London grapples with a decision that with change her life forever. Nine Fold Make A Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan is a rich examination of humanity and the struggles we face that transcend generations.
“What about a man who courted his woman via pigeon mail, so he called the chef the night before their wedding to ask if he can cook the bird and serve it at the reception, to allow the guests to ingest the effort of their love? To tear the brown, gamey flesh and hook the wishbone with their little fingers and pull either side ’til it snaps?”
The story opens with Ruth, a child aboard a ship bound for New York where they are hoping to reunite with family and start anew. However, they make a misguided early departure from the ship and land in Cork, Ireland.
Just as long as she ignored the pull in her pocket where the compass tried to drag her down. It must be broken too, she told herself, the magnets somehow mangled when the boat slammed the shore, because as they boarded the tram she had checked it, just to be sure. She had stood at the edge of the dock and gazed out at the Atlantic, knowing the sea was meant to be East. The arrow had dithered, stuttering like a lip before tears. And then it had fallen down. South. The sea spreading off the bottom of Ireland and away.
Outsiders by birth and belief, Ruth and her family attempt to navigate the tricky waters as immigrants in the early 20th century. Ruth looks to her father, a playwright with a fierce imagination who crafts fantastical stories, for escape from their harsh reality. Many of these stories have a mysterious origin until Ruth understands that sometimes the most mysterious thing of all is one’s own family.
A wall of hush lingered in the room. Not one of them moved. Instead they just hovered there in the darkness of a north Lithuanian shed with a beautiful young girl and an earnest young boy, stupid with love; a woman they had never quite liked and a man they had never quite understood. But suddenly the light had caught them differently, just two characters in a story, right back at the beginning— a story that had finally been told. As Ruth realized that now, everything really was lost.
Shem Sweeney is a young man trapped in the silence of his own creation. In an effort to protect his mother, Shem becomes a mute to avoid the temptation to share a secret that he was sure would break her heart. Keeping with the beliefs of the late 1950’s, he is sent to Montague House, an asylum run by Catholic nuns, with the hopes of restoring his ability to speak. Shem begins a complicated friendship with the only other Jewish person at Montague House, Alf, who coerces Shem into transcribing his memories before he succumbs to his illness. Through these exchanges we discover the depth and details behind Shem’s history.
So I wondered now if a family could ever really exist without these lies, these secrets, to keep it alive. Or if, in the end, that was the definition of love.
Aisling Creedon is a present day obituary columnist for a newspaper in London. Her relationship with Noah takes a significant turn when he presents her with a second-hand Irish written book of instructions on converting to Judaism. In a flight of panic, she abandons Noah following a Hanukkah celebration with his family to return to her family in Ireland where they are celebrating Christmas.
Not even a tiny white swan bent into place, the lines so defined that when you take it apart it can just be put back together again, in nine simple folds, exactly the same as before.
She struggles with the weight of and the possible consequences of her decisions- both to leave Noah so abruptly and to shed her past, her family, her life before. Searching for answers she seeks out the woman who owned the book prior to her, hoping to see satisfaction in her decision. Through this quest, aided by annotations in the book made by the previous owner, Aisling reveals the stitching that held each of the three narratives together.
He picks it up. He stares at the title, still struggling to believe. And then he reads, knowing he might not stop, not tomorrow or even the tomorrow after that when the pigeons have flown off somewhere better again, resisting the urge to come home. Because in the end, it is the only story to have survived.
With imaginative prose each story is woven to a satisfying completeness. A powerful account of what defines family and what we do to belong, Nine Folds Make A Paper Swan takes the mostly unknown stories of the Jewish community in Ireland and uses it as a mirror to reflect the greater human experience.
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A review copy of this title was provided by Tin House Books via Netgalley.