June 1907. Rachel Isaacson, a spirit child, is born into a large and rigidly orthodox Jewish family in the Lower East Side. Hungry for freedom, dominated by a tyrannical father and haunted by inexplicable visions and voices, Rachel’s quest for independence leads her into a marriage of convenience with tragic consequences.
Across the Atlantic, Ciaran McMurrough, storyteller, fiddler and cliff climber, leads a life of pastoral innocence on Rathlin Island, off the coast of Ulster. Fatherless, his parentage shrouded in mystery, Ciaran’s upbringing, in a tight-knit and isolated Catholic community, does not prepare him for the violence and subtlety of political passions during and immediately following the Irish Civil War.
Rachel and Ciaran meet on the docks of lower Manhattan in 1928. Outcasts in their own communities – one by choice, one by chance – are they destined to repeat an eternal pattern of love and loss? Or can they break the cycle of their past.
‘God forbid,’ said Jacob, ‘that my son should be visited with the misery of daughters.’ And all I could think of was how my mother had said her father had felt the same way. But my mother was very different to Rachel in Tunnel of Mirrors and the hurt of that rejection followed her for her whole life.
Rachel is wilful and anarchic, she is the bane of her traditional, orthodox Jewish father’s life. The youngest of his many children, she has always been different, chanting songs reserved for men only to sing and saying that she heard this or that from birds and animals, or from her Bubbie Ruchel who died before she was born. The children at school think she has the evil eye.
The lives of Rachel and Ciaran run parallel and we swap from one to the other – Rachel, in New York, and Ciaran, in Ireland. Rachel is desperate to leave the tyranny of her father’s orthodoxy and make a life of her own. In her desperation, she marries a small time crook who thinks he’s Al Capone, only more handsome, but it all goes horribly wrong and she is left alone, unable to divorce him as he has disappeared.
Ciaran, who near the end says he is almost twice Rachel’s age, is still in Ireland, living with his mother Flora, (though at this point Rachel probably wasn’t even born) until inadvertent involvement in the ‘troubles’ causes him to flee. He often dreams of someone that he will eventually meet, as Rachel does as well. Neither understand the significance.
‘For isn’t it true that though a man may dream of what he sees, what he sees is often made of what he dreams’.
This is such a beautiful, lyrical book, that uses language and poetry to draw beautiful images, as fantastical as the stories that Ciaran tells anyone willing to listen – stories of the old days, the old country and the sidhe, the faery folk of Irish folklore, said to live beneath the hills and often identified as the remnant of the ancient Tuatha Dé Danann.
I loved this book so much. I can’t even begin to describe my feelings. The weaving of Jewish and Catholic history and religion is so well told and researched and is one with which I am familiar as it is my own experience, though obviously many decades later.
Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours
About the Author
Ferne Arfin was born in New York and now makes London her home. She earned a degree in journalism, speech and drama at Syracuse University in New York and worked as a journalist, copywriter and actress before earning an MA in Creative Writing, with Malcolm Bradbury, at the University of East Anglia. She works as a travel writer and lives in London with Lulu, a feisty and well-travelled West Highland terrier.