The other week, as I was reading Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy and posted my comments on this blog, a good friend of mine jokingly commented on Facebook, “Does it feel strange to read a book that doesn’t have pictures in it?” (I have an app that automatically posts my blog entries on my Facebook page, about the only postings I do on Facebook anymore.) She was referring, obviously, to the fact that much of what I’ve been reading recently has been comics. What she probably didn’t notice is that, while I read many comics, I also read a lot of other things as well, fiction as well as non-fiction. And one of those books has been Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel, The Stranger within Sarah Stein.
The publication of this novel is significant because it is the first book of fiction from Thane in ten years. His last novel was The Golems of Gotham in 2002, and before that there were the two other books in his Holocaust Trilogy: Second Hand Smoke (1999) and the story cycle Elijah Visible (1996). And since Golems, Thane has written a long and thoughtful legal essay/meditation, The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to do What’s Right (2004), and has edited the collection, Law Lit: From Atticus Finch to The Practice: A Collection of Great Writing about the Law (2007). Thane’s law writing is fine, but I really love his fiction, so I am very glad to see this new novel. (Full disclosure: Thane is a good friend of mine, but I try to be objective in my assessment of his work.) Several years ago he told me that he was working on a new work of fiction, but he said that this would be a young adult novel. And earlier this year, when the book was published, Thane wrote to tell me that his young adult novel was out. I can see what he’s referring to in calling his book “young adult,” but I don’t necessarily agree with his labeling. The protagonist of the book, and the novel’s narrator, is a precocious twelve-year-old girl whose parents have just recently separated and are getting a divorce. She lives in TriBeCa, but her world is split in two when her mother moves across the bridge to Brooklyn. And much like her divided home life, having to ride her bike back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge, sending time with one parent and then the other, her inner life is fractured as well. She sees herself as two people, the more free-wheeling goth daughter when living with her father, and the more prim dutiful daughter when around her mother. Put bluntly, she doesn’t feel like herself nor comfortable in her own skin, like the person(s) she’s become isn’t the person she really is…thus the title “The Stranger within Sarah Stein.” Yet, while this book is about and narrated by an adolescent character, it’s not necessarily one that resonates with or speaks to only adolescent readers. Make no mistake, there’s much “adult” in this novel, just as there is in Thane’s earlier works.
Events begin moving in the book when, one day, Sarah discovers a portal in one of the towers of the bridge, and inside she discovers an apartment where a homeless man, an disgraced fire fighter, has set up house. This in-between point, relatively equidistant between her father in Manhattan and her mother in Brooklyn (in spirit if not in mileage), becomes a safe haven for her, a place where she can feel more like herself…whoever that might be. Her friendship with the homeless man, Clarence Wind, leads to a series of events that involve 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers, an event that casts its shadows over the entire narrative. This isn’t a book about 9/11, or at least this isn’t a book on 9/11 in the vein of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or Don DeLillo’s The Falling Man. (The latter I thought was okay, but I didn’t much like Foer’s novel. It struck me as a little to “cute” in its style, and I felt it a poor follow-up to his first novel.) Thane really isn’t interested in telling stories about the falling Towers or using the tragedy and its resulting trauma as the premise to his narrative…and by association, his popularity and readership. The Stranger within Sarah Stein is more about ghosts than anything. And ghosts are what Thane writes about quite well. His three previous works of fiction, the Holocaust Trilogy, all concern ghosts: the fragmented “ghost” of Adam Posner’s identities in Elijah Visible, the impact of the ghosts of Holocaust survivor’s past in Second Hand Smoke, and the actual ghosts (or golems) that haunt the pages of The Golems of Gotham. I wouldn’t say that these three books are about the Holocaust; they about the after of the Holocaust, the residual effects or the “stamp” left by the Holocaust on the lives of the second generation, the children of Holocaust survivors. In similar ways, The Stranger within Sarah Stein is about the aftereffects of 9/11 and how its memory, or the lack thereof, can have an impact on those who were not even directly affected by the tragedy.
I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read it–and I hope this book gets a wide readership, both adult and young adult–but this novel involves actual ghosts. And much like Thane’s other works of fiction, you have the feeling as you make your way through Sarah Stein (and especially after you finish it) that what you’re reading may or may not be happening, that the events unfolding in the narrative seem to be happening in a nether world, some place in-between fantasy and what you understand as reality. Much like Sarah herself, you as a reader feel that you may be someplace between two realms and you’re not entirely certain what is transpiring. But that is the strength of Thane’s books: they all take place in a world that has been transformed by traumatic events, so much so that you feel out of place, alien…a stranger. This feeling of being in multiple realms at once goes hand-in-hand with one of the themes of Sarah Stein: twinning. Not only is there a split sense of identity within Sarah, but there are many other instances of twoness in the novel. There are the literal twins of Eva and Paulina, Sarah’s friends; the two ways of dressing and acting, each of which reflects not only the personalities of Sarah’s, but also that of her friends; Clarence and his estranged brother, Jefferson Wind; the two sides of the Brooklyn Bridge; the two different lives lived by Sarah’s parents; the two worlds her parents represent, the world of art and creativity (her father) and the world of fame and celebrity (her mother); and the two ways of reading Clarence Wind, the homeless and disgraced ex-fireman who propels the narrative. One could even see the novel’s intended audience in a state of twoness. Is this a young adult novel, or is this a “regular” work of literary fiction? In what area will this book be placed in a Barnes & Noble, the adolescent literature shelves or the “Fiction” section? Much like its protagonist, perhaps the book is even in an in-between place.
There is a lot to The Stranger within Sarah Stein, and this novel can be appreciated by younger as well as older readers. This is a narrative that could be easily appreciated by young adults–especially given the fact that Sarah narrates, and as a result, we see things through her eyes and can easily emphasize with her–as well as more sophisticated or adult readers. Unlike his earlier works of fiction, Thane hasn’t given us another post-Holocaust book. What he’s written is a novel about traumatic events and how those events continue to resonate well after the tragedy takes place. Like aftershock…or ghosts.