The Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel
Review by Laura Rock // from issue 2. Vol. 2
The Mystics of Mile End is an ambitious book overflowing with ideas and life. In her debut novel, Sigal Samuel brings together extreme secularism and faith; love, loneliness and loss; scientific inquiry; tales from the Holocaust, the Bible and Shakespeare; and a glimmer of magic realism, as folded letters become birds that fly to nearby branches to be discovered by the intended recipient.
Lev and Samara Meyer grieve the death of their mother and their professor father’s subsequent emotional retreat. Their home in Montreal’s Mile End, a neighbourhood where Hasidic Jews and hipsters coexist, thrums with unspoken wishes. The children are attracted to the ultra-Orthodox faith of their mother, while their father, David, once a believer, renounces it bitterly. Although his academic specialty is Jewish mysticism, he discourages religious practice. Prayer is magical thinking, he tells them to no avail. Mr. Glassman, next-door neighbour and Holocaust survivor, secretly tutors the siblings in the religion of their birth. Down the street, old Mr. Katz builds a replica of the biblical Tree of Knowledge with toilet paper tubes, leaves and dental floss, a project that grips Lev’s imagination.
But it’s Samara’s journey that propels the plot. She becomes obsessed with her father’s unfinished manuscript on the Tree of Life, a symbol of spiritual ascent. Scribbling fervid commentary in the margins of his pages, she surrenders to the same compulsion that fueled her father’s undeclared quest. Climbing the Tree of Life is said to have driven ancient scholars mad. It’s also forbidden for women, according to tradition. When Samara was a child, her mother told her, “Girls didn’t go wandering into strange gardens, girls didn’t climb the Tree of Life!” Instead, they “married good learned men” and then “covered their hair and raised their God-fearing children and that was that!” Samara, however, will not be contained.
The novel is divided into four parts, with first-person accounts from Lev, David and Samara followed by a section called Mile End. This structure affords access to multiple perspectives, layering the story with sadness and understanding as the Meyers veer between piety and skepticism. Silences deepen, carrying textured codes meant for those who know how to listen—messages transmitted in kitchen rituals, wordless telephone calls and the space between musical notes. Samuel is marvelous on silence and all it can hold. The final section unfolds in taut scenes, while the opening section, filled with quirkiness that seems overly familiar, is less effective.
Nonetheless, the voices in this book are urgent and real, inflected with personal history. Samara, suffering mid-course doubt, thinks, “I had passed my desperation through the air like a butterfly net and it caught strange moments of beauty, their tiny wings studded with secrets. But the secrets flaked off the second you touched them—it was all false, all fake—there were no secrets and there were no keys.”
The Mystics of Mile End rewards the reader with many secrets and strange moments of beauty, while leaving life’s unanswerable questions hanging in the air.