| BOOK REVIEW |

IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH AND YOM KIPPUR IN A GYM

By Michael Posner

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The Montréal Review, March 2024

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Since retiring from her post as an associate professor of social work at McMaster University in 2000, Montreal-born writer Nora Gold has not been idle.

On the back of Marrow and Other Stories (1998, Warwick Publishing), she made the intrepid leap into full-time writing. That decision has yielded two well-received novels (Fields of Exile, Dundurn Press, 2014; and The Dead Man, Inanna Publications, 2016). In addition, Gold founded Jewish Fiction.net, a respected on-line journal that she still edits.

Now, Montreal's Guernica Editions has published her latest work of fiction, a flip book containing two novellas -- In Sickness and In Health and Yom Kippur in a Gym. Stylistically, both rely predominantly on first person, interior monologues to drive the narrative.

In the former, Lily, a forty-something woman, struggles physically and psychologically with the stress of an inexplicable, but debilitating illness, the cause of which seven doctors have been unable to diagnose. 

"Once a month you are struck by a mysterious illness which transforms you from an active, busy, dynamic, productive, energetic, lively, cheerful person to a helpless body on fire, sweating, moaning, its eyes closed, lying in bed waiting passively for the fever to burn itself out."

After a few or several days, the illness vanishes -- as inexplicably as it arrived -- and Lily is whole again, a functioning wife, mother to two college-age children and respected teacher of art, specializing in illustration.

As she wrestles with the most recent visitation of her malaise, the novella skilfully probes the deepest recesses of Lily's thought processes. She revisits her difficult childhood, during which she was plagued by epilepsy. She explores her strained relationship with Ned, head of the fine arts department of her school. She muses about her husband, Perry, a pillar of emotional support but who, in the grip of her fever and anxiety, she begins to question.

In her frustration, she researches and, from her sick bed, spews out choice curses and insults taken from foreign languages (From Gaelic, for example: “Go ndéana an diabhal dréimire de cnámh do dhroma ag piocadh úll i ngairdín Ifrinn!” -- May the devil make a ladder of your back bones while picking apples in the garden of hell!).

Gold's prose is crisp and lucid, especially in her descriptions and analysis of what it means to be sick, to live in the grip of an enemy that cannot be named, and whose approach and retreat cannot be predicted. Inevitably, because the novella's central character is a largely bed-ridden patient, adrift on the turbulent sea of her musings, there isn't much plot here. What plot there is turns on a secret about her past that Lily has managed to keep from her husband and friends, but which is ultimately exposed. I only had some trouble with the premise -- that Lily could have been in such an essentially happy, stable marriage for so many years, without having disclosed a foundational aspect of her backstory.

In Yom Kippur in a Gym, we are thrust into the heads of a diverse group of five Jews running the last lap of a day-long marathon -- the end of the Yom Kippur service. It's the holiest day in Judaism, the day when God decides who shall live and who shall die, the coming year. It's also a fast day, so everyone present is hungry and dehydrated and aching for it to end.

The dramatis personae include Ira, a deeply depressed, gay student, recently spurned by a lover, on the brink of committing suicide; Tom, a successful physician and a member of the synagogue's board of directors, pondering his fractured relationship with two sisters and their husbands, and memories of an abusive father; Lucy, in denial about her husband's recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease; Rachel, the shul's pleasantly plump cook and baker, preoccupied with how the honey cake she has baked to serve at the end of Neila -- the final portion of the service -- will turn out, and whether ten pans will suffice to feed all comers; and Ezra, a struggling painter in his mid-60s, still trying to overcome a forty-year-old act of momentary negligence that, he has persuaded himself, caused him to forfeit a prestigious award that would have secured his career, and made him a household name in the art world.

This is a clever fictional conceit, no doubt -- to penetrate the thoughts of people torn between the subject ostensibly at hand (atonement for sins past, through prayer) and the myriad distractions that the human mind is heir to. And Gold's writing here is as psychologically insightful as in Sickness. The characters themselves all ring true.

Again, however, the initial premise -- people sitting or standing in prayer in more or less the same spot for several hours -- automatically imposes plot limitations. To be fair, there is a medical incident that occurs during the service that briefly cements these disparate figures, and shines some promising light through the darkness. But it doesn't quite compensate for the sense of repetition of the individual grievances.

Narratively, Yom Kippur has no genuine gear for Drive; it certainly works, but essentially in Reverse, the backward glance of memory, the reconstruction of pain, insult, doubt, lost opportunity, and recrimination. With In Sickness and in Health, there's a more confident authorial voice, a surer sense of lived experience. Still, in both novellas, Gold offers rich character studies and her always luminous gift for prose. 

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Michael Posner is a Toronto-based writer and playwright. His most recent work is Untold Stories, a three-book oral biography of Leonard Cohen (Simon and Schuster).

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MARROW

By Nora Gold

The Montréal Review, January 2022

THE LESSON OF THE RABBI

By Nora Gold

The Montréal Review, November 2022

FINAL MOVEMENT

By Nora Gold

The Montréal Review, April 2022

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