Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Tenth Song - Naomi Ragen

I picked this novel up at Gold's in Bondi when I went to replace my copy of Jephte's Daughter, which I'd given to my BFF. I'm still catching up on Ragen's novels - and there's a new one out published in October this year that I must track down, The Sisters Weiss.
The Tenth Song is the story of a family in crisis, exploring the dynamics of love and loyalty within the family, and also looking at how loyalties and trust can be stretched in a network of extended family and friends. Adam Samuels is a highly successful accountant, with a healthy list of high rolling clients, a beautiful house in a prime area of Boston, three children forging ahead with their lives with his generous financial assistance, and a wife, Abigail, who loves him as much now as she did the first day she met him. He and Abigail are observant Orthodox Jews, well respected and liked in their congregation, and enjoying a busy life of work, socialising with friends, and regular get togethers with their family for Shabbat and holidays. The story opens with Abigail immersed in the planning for the engagement party of their youngest, spoiled daughter Kayla, a Harvard law student, engaged to Seth - another law student. She is busy and pleasantly stressed by the party (Kayla is capricious and can be difficult) but is conscious at the same time of how very good her life is. She is still teaching English in high school and loving it, she enjoys her lovely house and gardens, and as long as the party happens according to Kayla's expectations, she knows that it will be yet another memorable occasion to add to the family annals and photographs. She is completely unprepared for the disaster that is about to shatter her world, and that of her children.

At the caterers, a family business she's been using for many years, she is disconcerted to find the staff evasively offering her their sympathies. She has no idea what they're talking about until they swing their computer screen around for her to read the breaking news that Adam has been arrested for funding terrorist organisations.

Meanwhile, Adam has been taken by the FBI for questioning, and has had his secretary call Abigail and his lawyer so they can both meet him at the court for the arraignment. He is in shock, disbelief and in complete ignorance of how the charge has come about. Fortunately, he is released on bail and is permitted to go home. Meanwhile, Kayla, who is supposed to me meeting Seth is still waiting for him - he's never late. When he doesn't return her calls, she heads to his dorm to find out why - to be greeted with the news of her father's arrest, and Seth's unexpected coolness and distance. Rebuffed and furious, she leaves him there after questioning his loyalty and apparent lack of support. The two out of town children - seven months pregnant Shoshana (whose husband, like Seth, distances himself and doesn't come) and Josh, with wife Deirdre, have arrived from interstate in support, and the story begins to emerge. A hedge fund that Adam's company had invested in has turned out to be a front for Al Qaeda and other organisations, so well covered up that Adam's due diligence failed to detect the link. The evening is a mix of emotions - the three grown up kids fighting, Abigail upset and placating, Adam exhausted, still traumatised by his experience, and Shoshana's eldest daughter still upset by things said to her at school - the twenty-four hour news cycle having allowed for the story to have been broadcast willy-nilly as it unfolded.

Eventually, Josh, Deidre and Shoshana pledge their support and head back to their respective homes,  Kayla gets on with the process of setting up interviews for her summer internship, and Abigail and Adam settle in for the legal process to start preparing a defence. Abigail, desperate to help, is taken back to the experience of Adam's cancer diagnosis and treatment some years previously when he withdrew from her, insisting that it was his battle and she couldn't help. Disenfranchised, she is emotional and fearful of what it means for their relationship and whether in fact she is of any use to him in his life at all. That plays out in meetings with their legal team when, all too often, she bursts out with emotional questions, or challenges what she thinks is a lack of committment or belief in Adam's innocence. The difficulties of being caught up in the midst of the maelstrom while not being the principal character in the drama are painted with heartbreaking clarity. Abigail's sense of powerlessness to help Adam in his enormous crisis undermines her sense of self and her sense of place in the relationship.

Then, compounding the stresses, Kayla - who had gone to New York for the day for an internship interview - disappears. Seth, who had been trying unsuccessfully to reconnect with Kayla, is the one to break the news to Adam and Abigail, and it is the last straw for Adam. The days pass and there is no word, until one night the phone rings, and it is Kayla with a mobile phone on its last bit of charge, ringing from Israel to say she's safe, but she had to get away, she doesn't know how long she'll stay away, but she will be in touch. For Adam, it's the ultimate rejection. Kayla, his favourite of the children, has deserted him in his crisis. Her flight also impacts his case, when it is brought up in court. Shoshana and Josh are unforgiving, saying it is selfish of her to run away.

Kayla herself - as the narrative shifts to Jerusalem - is in turmoil. The breaking apart of her safe, planned and comfortable life has shattered her sense of self, her belief in her own worth, and her fairytale understanding of how life actually works. Seth was the perfect partner, they had a perfect life all planned, with a perfect wedding and plan for the long term. Now, that all seems to have been pulled from under her, and feeling completely overwhelmed by her parent's need for her, she flees. She has no plans. She has just the money in her tuition account. She doesn't know what to do.

Adam and Abigail, left to themselves, gradually start to find a path through the mire, and are slowly finding their way back to each other. However, the legal team are insisting that he take a plea and serve some time, as they can't see any way of proving what Adam states - that he never knew about the link to the terrorist organisations, and that is is innocent. The lawyers insist that while they believe him, the current climate is going to punish him for even the idea and he risks absolute ruin if he tries to go plead innocence.

In Jerusalem, a chance meeting at the Western Wall leads to Kayla joining an archeological dig near the Dead Sea, close to Qumran, were the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The people on the dig are a mixed bag. At the same site is a community of people drawn together by a young rabbi who is preaching something of the separation from the demands of contemporary society that led to the Essenes (the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls) isolating themselves in the region centuries ago. She finds herself drawn to the rabbi's lectures, and starts to find some peace in herself. She meets Daniel, enigmatic and mysterious. Initially, he stays distant from her, but eventually, he is able to tell her his story - that his wife and small daughter were killed by a suicide bomber. Appalled, she doesn't know how to tell him her own story - so puts a magazine with an article in his hands. Much to her surprise, he asks for the article, saying he has contacts and may be able to help.

Back in Boston, Seth has begun to spend time with Adam and Abigail, supporting them and requiring support from them in Kayla's continued absence. His parents have roundly condemned him for his ongoing relationship, fearing the consequences for him. He becomes the conduit, unknown to Adam and Abigail, for Daniel's information, relayed by Kayla. Eventually, Kayla writes to her parents - having had fairly minimal contact with Seth - whose presence in her life she has begun to seriously question - apologising to them for her desertion, but asking that they hear that she's safe, happy, and finding out for herself what she really wants to do with her life. For Adam, this is throwing in his face all that he's ever given her, and he insists that Abigail fly to Israel and bring her home. Abigail is reluctant - on the basis that her trip to Israel will impact on his case as Kayla's did, and that it will leave Adam alone. He is adamant, however, and she finds herself en route to Israel and Kayla's dig.

Once there, she is torn between what she sees of this highly functional community and Kayla's obvious contentment, and what she feels she should be doing to get Kayla home. It results in numerous quarrels between the two of them that ultimately clear the air of years of submerged conflicts and they start to see each other as the indviduals they are, rather just as mother and daughter. By now, it is also clear to Abigail, if not to Kayla herself, that Seth is no longer the man in her life - Daniel is slowly becoming that. She also discovers, accidentally, that the information that has been coming from Seth that is starting to help the lawyers make headway with Adam's case has been sent from Daniel. The phone conversation she has with Adam (not telling him about Daniel at his request) does nothing to reassure him. Highly wound by circumstances, all he can see is that Kayla's got herself mixed up in something weird and has also managed to corrupt her mother. He sends Seth after both of them.

Seth's arrival at the dig is classic alpha male coming from civilisation to wilderness outpost intending to be masterful stuff. He hires a car at Ben Gurion airport that is large enough to accommodate Kayla, Abigail and all their combined luggage, absolutely certain that his arrival will be met with relief. It isn't. By anyone - Abigail, Kayla or Daniel. His timing is off too - the whole community are about to head into a desert where an important discovery has been made in one of the caves. Unwilling to be left behind, and notwithstanding having just done an international flight and long drive, he goes too. In the course of the walk, it becomes clear to all of them that everything has changed. Trying to force the issue with Kayla, he finds himself on the receiving end of revelations about their lives and what she wants now that he never wanted to hear.

Abigail, who has been feeling unwell for some time, struggles with the long walk and rugged terrain. She battles on nevertheless, determined to be part of the discovery. And then, creating yet another crisis, she collapses, prompting Daniel to contact the local army base so she can be medivacced out, and she is flown back to Jerusalem for surgery for a ruptured appendix. Kayla has to call Adam with the news and he is left alone in Boston waiting until she can call back post-surgery. Thankfully, the surgery goes well, and Abigail comes through - although it was a near thing. At the same time, the welcome news comes that the elusive men, upon whom proof of Adam's innocence is dependent, have been arrested in Lybia.

Life can never be the same for any of them, but I'll leave that hanging for anyone who is intrigued enough to hunt down a copy for themselves - my reviews can't be spoilers for the entire book!!

I really enjoyed this book. It's pacy and gripping. The sense of dominoes falling is incredibly strong. One thing goes wrong, and due to the reactions of the individuals concerned, a string of consequences are set off, creating numerous unexpected ripples. In life, most of us spend a lot of, sometimes, unnecessary time on the 'what ifs' and this book demonstrates how that can be variously useless and useful at different times. The very ordinariness of the characters lends credence to what might be considered a slightly fantastical plot, although, given Ragen's tendency to model her books on actual stories, I have no doubt that somewhere underneath this story is the real life incident that inspired it. It also made me homesick for Israel - again! Somehow, in the next year or so, I'm going to have to get back there!

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