Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

"Fervour" written by Toby Lloyd is a book that tells the story of a family through a slow and gradual process.

“Fervour” written by Toby Lloyd is a book that tells the story of a family through a slow and gradual process.

Toby Lloyd’s slow burn of a debut novel is in the tradition of the pentagonal family saga, a subgenre that might include Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Add to this formula the elements of religious mysticism, ethnicity (in this case Jewishness), and an exploration of the ethics around using family as material for literature, and you should have a truly combustible mix.

The five individuals in the Rosenthal family have unique personalities and are constantly at odds with one another, similar to the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections”. Hannah, the mother, is a successful journalist who often writes about conservative views on religion and gender roles. Eric, the father, is a kind and devout lawyer. Their oldest son, Gideon, is openly gay and joins the military in Israel. Youngest son Tovyah starts his studies at Oxford, having always been sheltered and reserved, with a tendency to become defensive when confronted.

However, the second oldest child, Elsie, originally deemed the “perfect daughter”, is ultimately overtaken by teenage angst and unknown forces. She becomes the central point of destruction for the family. When Elsie disappears from their residence in North London at the age of 14, she reappears five days later drastically altered, causing concern for those who knew her: “The return of the missing girl was not met with the same girl who had gone missing.”

Elsie went missing shortly following the passing of her grandfather, Yosef, who was from Poland. Once she was found on the Norfolk coast, she received therapy and was given antidepressants. However, this was not a typical teenage meltdown. Her parents became concerned when they learned that Elsie was exploring concepts from the Kabbalah and learning about “ancient methods of communicating with the deceased”.

Soon after, Hannah starts writing a novel recounting Yosef’s experiences during his time in Treblinka, uncovering the truth that her father-in-law was a Sonderkommando – a Jewish prisoner forced to collaborate in the Holocaust under threat of death. When the book is finally published, it stirs up anger within the entire family. Titled “Gehinnom and Afterwards” (named after the Hebrew word for hell), it quickly becomes a bestseller. In a further controversial move, Hannah’s next project is a memoir about Elsie titled “Daughters of Endor”, in which she accuses Elsie of being a witch, influenced by demonic forces. This accusation creates outrage among the family, with Tovyah angrily exclaiming, “It’s difficult to have a writer as a mother…all of life’s troubles portrayed for the world to see on the shelves of Waterstones.”

The majority of the events in the novel are told from the perspective of Tovyah’s college friend, Kate, giving us a distant yet somewhat othering viewpoint of the Rosenthal family. Kate, who is only half Jewish (not through the matrilineal side), engages in discussions about antisemitism with Hannah, revealing the troubling presence of it at Oxford. Following the release of Daughters of Endor, a swastika is found on Tovyah’s door. The clash between Hannah and Kate over anti-Zionism and antisemitism leads to a lecture on the history of persecution, which carries a heavy weight and relevance after the events in Israel on 7 October 2023.

The stage is set for a dramatic showdown when Kate pays a visit to the Rosenthal residence, with Elsie in attendance. Yet, the book’s momentum is hindered by peculiar structural decisions. A tense interview at Oxford, where Tovyah passionately discusses modernist writers who were anti-Semitic, is weakened by the fact that we already know he succeeds. There is also a confusing eight-page retelling of Jephthah’s story by a rabbi, which loses the reader’s interest. And the closing confrontation at a tense Shabbat dinner, where Elsie displays her supernatural abilities, falls short. The elements that could spark an explosion in the novel only come together – quite literally – in the final pages.

The issue is that Elsie, although the most fascinating character, remains distant and controlled. Lloyd’s ambitious, disjointed storytelling doesn’t completely come together, although the book is always engaging. The central struggle to break free is a gripping, Roth-esque exploration of familial turmoil similar to American Pastoral, but the approach ultimately undermines the explosive subject matter. That being said, Fervour is crafted with great skill and stays with the reader even after finishing. Lloyd’s exceptional writing guarantees that his future works will be worth exploring.

The book “Fervour” by Toby Lloyd is released by Sceptre with a retail price of £16.99. Help the Guardian and Observer by purchasing your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees for delivery may be included.

Source: theguardian.com