by Tsipi Keller
Spuyten Duyvil 2006
What do you get when you mix a Rashomon narrative with a Hitchcockian detective esthetic? You get Retelling, by Tsipi Keller.
Not only that, you get an us against them scenario that constricts tighter as it seemingly unfolds letting you know the universe has other plans beyond comprehension and to attempt understanding is to deal in frustration. This also proves a long understood legal truth: memory is an unreliable witness. Ask three on site witnesses what they saw, and despite fragmentary synonymies, there are wide gulfs of disparity.
For Sally, all of these factors and more come into play as she finds herself thrust into the starring role as prime suspect in the death of her friend, Elsbeth, a friend she near elevated to deific status. And sympathy is difficult to find. None to be had from the law dogs, who appear simultaneously as heartless ghouls and bumblers. Not a smidge to be found from otherwise trusted friends like Lydia, who reserved for Sally an opinion that straddles the border between extreme tolerance and contempt. So how then do we square what appears the narrator’s misguided optimism at the novel’s opening, “Ah, to be alive I thought. Not a small miracle, considering the events of the last few weeks and the growing uncertainty I sensed all around me.”
Once we get underway in earnest, we soon realize that in this domain, optimism is not the operative command, but caution bordering on paranoia is. Beneath the surface of this well crafted suspense narrative lie the tightly dovetailed building blocks of mastery. In this regard, a debt to master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock is indeed owed. To explore the Hitchcock connection, we must delve further into some of the key motifs and themes used in his stories:
1. Characters who switch sides or who cannot be trusted.
2. Bumbling or incompetent authority figures, particularly police officers.
3. An innocent man accused.
Number one (1) finds itself played out in characters like Lydia. Sometimes friend, most often adversary. For number two (2) we of course have primary detective Frank Delaney who manages quite well the navigation between heartless Neanderthal and diligent detective. Yet we are never quite sure if his motives are anything but skewed. And finally, for number three (3) an innocent, in this case woman, is accused. How we conclude this woman, Sally, is innocent becomes easier as we are given free access to her immense interior monologue, voluble as she is, learning the hows, whys, and wherefores that compose her emotional universe. We are thus fairly sure that if this woman is after all guilty as charged, she is indeed a master prevaricator.
These Hitchcockian themes are used not indiscriminately and gratuitously but judiciously and purposefully, applied with the skillful hand of a literary artisan. A less able writer would have crumbled at the starting gate.
In conclusion, we come away with a rich and tightly woven suspense story from Tsipi Keller, a master storyteller of the modern world, who assembles her palette of color and texture in the most exquisitely sensual ways and who well acquainted with the requisite motifs and idioms applies and withdraws as necessary. Not afraid to wear her influences on her sleeve, she does so humbly and without guile, as she offers her predecessors a grand and glorious complement by way of her deft display of mastery under their auspices.
Tsipi Keller was born in Prague, raised in Israel, and has been living in the United
States since 1974. Her short fiction, and her poetry translations, have appeared in
many journals and anthologies; her novels The Prophet of Tenth Street (1995) and
Leverage (1997) were translated into Hebrew and published by Sifriat Poalim. (Currently, The Prophet of Tenth Street is being translated into German.) Keller’s translation of Dan Pagis’s posthumous collection, Last Poems, was published by The Quarterly Review of Literature (1993), and her translation of Irit Katzir’s posthumous collection, And I Wrote Poems, was published by Carmel in 2000. Among her awards are: A National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, two New York Foundation for the Arts grants, and an Armand G. Erpf award from Columbia University. Her novel Jackpot was published by Spuyten Duyvil (2004). Her novel Retelling was published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2006.
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