The Singing Forest by Judith McCormack

Judith McCormack’s historical courtroom drama, The Singing Forest, begins with a Jewish proverb: “A man should stay alive, if only out of curiosity.” From “curiosity killed the cat” to Alice’s “curiouser and curiouser,” the notion of curiosity runs through English literature as well as through Jewish proverbs. Dickens’s novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, offers one Victorian example of a novelist who, like lawyer McCormack, is steeped in the law. More important than all of these examples, however, is the etymology of curiosity, which is linked to both care and cure; and it is this moral dimension, which adds considerable weight to McCormack’s novel that sings of historical forests in lyrical and ethical tones. Curiosity in Belarus’s Kurapaty forest forms the background and foreground of this historical novel, involving Stalin’s genocide prior to World War 2.

Curiosity in Belarus’s Kurapaty forest forms the background and foreground of this historical novel, involving Stalin’s genocide prior to World War 2.

From the outset, curiosity plays a role as two boys and their dog sift through the Belarusian forest for evidence of a massacre: “Children found the bones more than once.” (This recurrence is not limited to Europe’s landscape; Canada’s residential schools provide similar evidence of widespread tragedy.) The narrator describes the setting with a sibilance that brings the haunting scene to life: “It was a soft, deadly secret that had settled into the small forest, blanketing the ground, wrapping itself around the rough skin of the trees.” McCormack revives the secret, hovering between what’s buried and what’s above ground, what sings into a surreal blend. The forest whispers to silence the screams. The children are curious, the reader is curious, and McCormack cares.

This secret grows with time, gains momentum, and takes on a life of its own. “The people nearby tended it silently, patting its edges, smoothing it, the metallic taste of it always in their mouths.” Ghostlike and shapeless, the secret pervades the lives of the villagers. “As soon as they thought they knew it, though, as soon as they believed they could run their hands along its contours in their sleep, they would remember something else.” (Any sylvan pastoral mode takes a sinister turn with Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, where he associates Germany with the forest symbol.)

McCormack shapes this amorphous secret through a sudden snap back to the past: “The black vans. The barking dogs. The shout in the night.” Her abrupt rhythm strikes at the moments of massacre. These flashbacks are part of the novel’s technique that alternates between Toronto and Belarus, protagonist Leah Jarvis and antagonist Stefan Drozd, Jewish lawyer and Stalinist criminal, victims and victimizers, symmetry and asymmetry. Orphaned Leah is raised by three uncles from her father’s side and one Jewish aunt from her mother’s, who reminds her of her Ashkenazi hair: “Strands of DNA sliding down an ancestral ladder.” A marker of identity, this double helix of DNA constitutes the novel’s strange historical loops, imagistic patterns, moral dilemmas, and a writerly genetic code that includes Dostoyevsky, Emily Dickinson, Kafka, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

After her mother dies in a car accident and her father disappears, Leah is brought up by her maternal aunt, Anna Rubin, who tells her, “No such thing as half-Jewish…. If your mother is Jewish, you’re Jewish. Halacha.” Halacha is Jewish law, a counter-weight to the Canadian legal system and to domestic rituals of brisket and tzimmes. Meanwhile, her non-Jewish uncles from her father’s side of the family regard her Jewishness as “an awkward genetic problem.” Leah examines the implications of her hyphenated, hybrid identity: “Half-Jewish. This is unsound genetically as well … not a matter of chromosomal halves…. This is a mess of a genome.” Everything in The Singing Forest is a charged dialectic of curious chromosomes, doubles and halves.

Each chapter of the novel begins with an epigraph, alternating between Jewish proverbs and Stalin’s dictatorial words. Opposed to Stalin’s propaganda, Jewish wit proclaims, “Sleep faster, we need the pillows” and “Better wit than wealth.” Another Jewish proverb, “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows,” points not only to the quality of light in the courthouse but also to the importance of glass in the novel. Drozd is a glassblower in Minsk and Toronto. The glass motif is established at the end of Chapter 1 when Leah dreams about Drozd “creating loops of molten red glass, twirling them into brilliant arcs.” This creator of bottles is also a destroyer: “So hard, so transparent. So beautiful. So breakable.” Half-full, half-empty, glass containers become a metaphor for brutality, clarity, fragile lives, and moral codes.

Leah speaks to Nate, her lover and fellow lawyer: “This is the truth about glass. It has the molecular properties of both solid and liquid, something in between. An amorphous solid.” The truth is translucent, if not transcendent, in The Singing Forest, betwixt and between trees with hidden roots and bird’s-eye views. On one hand, admiration for the artistry of glass-blowers in Minsk: “they handle the glass, they become makers, moulders, jugglers …. Stretching, shaping, twisting the glass … flowing from one shape to another.” On the other hand, the destructive element, torture, and shattering of glass. This process of glass-making parallels McCormack’s shaping of prose, by turns analytical and lyrical. Pigmented glass canes arrive from Germany: Brilliantrubin for Aunt Annie Rubin and her dead sister; Kobaltblau for Der Blaue Reiter – Leah’s favourite artistic movement around Kandinsky’s move from Moscow to Munich. Curious colours migrate and metamorphose in The Singing Forest.

The novel’s sudden transitions have subtle linkages. No sooner does one chapter close with furnaces in Drozd’s Minsk factory than the next begins with Leah’s burn from her gas stove: “Her hand, her arm wrapped in gauze dressings.” If this chapter begins with Leah’s burns, it ends with her and her aunt in an ice cave. Fire and ice: “Glass. Were we to dwell on the many curious relations that glass bears to scientific principles … it would take us far beyond our limits.” Glazed curiosities transform and transcend in an epigraph from Maimonides: “No form remains permanently in a substance; a constant change takes place, one form is taken off and another is put on.” For a half-Jew with her half-filled glass, The Singing Forest also serves as a guide for the perplexed. McCormack cannily times history, foreshortening ancient ribbons of song flowing through Leah, celebrating holidays such as Purim in the kitchen. Baking Hamantaschen, Leah asks her aunt about Queen Esther, her aunt replies “Long gone,” and in the oven “the timer dings,” signalling the end and beginning of history and her rite of passage. The novelist telescopes centuries in a split second.

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Drozd escapes Europe and resumes his life of glassblowing after the war in Toronto where he marries and begins a new family. Once again, the suddenness of violence is prepared for by subtlety of imagery. The narrator shifts from the solidity of glass to its splintering into shards by a careless hand. Italicized commentary guides the reader: “Let us pass to another curious feature of glass, the fact that it may be made from such a number of different ingredients. One notable example is forest glass or waldglas, which …. is valued now for its coarseness.” This coarseness immediately transitions to Drozd’s domestic brutality, as he hits his wife. The curiosity of glass recurs throughout the novel, acting as a subtext for its forestry and different narrative ingredients.

Drozd’s murderous ways contrast with Leah’s domestic scenes, whether with her aunt’s Jewish cooking, her uncles’ caring ways, or her lover’s caresses. After one of her uncles dies, Nate takes her to an outdoor concert at Toronto’s Music Garden. This section begins with the cellist’s bow fraying, “a few hairs swinging from the end as it moves back and forth.” This bow is emblematic of the frayed lives and frayed narrative, which comes to an uncertain end. Leah and Nate listen to Glière’s “Berceuse,” a lullaby that cradles the characters and the composer’s life between Kyiv and Moscow. Toronto’s Music Garden embodies a Bach suite, McCormack’s fugue following that looping pattern. Her final chapter begins with a line from Millay’s elegy, “Dirge without Music”: “Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.” McCormack provides the necessary music and fills the darkness with light.

At the cemetery Leah notices a small bird sitting on a branch. “The bird hops sideways, turns a black-and-white head, and ruffles its feathers, sending out a high piercing call.” Leah has been a bird watcher throughout the novel because Drozd’s name means thrush, though he is more of a vulture preying on innocent victims. Through torture, he forces his victims to sing before he thrashes his way across Europe and the Atlantic. As much as Leah wants to “take away the bird” and erase the picture of her uncle’s death, she cannot do so, for feathers have accompanied her through life. “Birds. Dimwits on the ground, maestros in the sky.” As a child, she asks her aunt if birds are suspended by invisible strings, and her desire to fly carries on into adulthood. Through flights of fancy, she soars with them.

Horses ground her: a half-Jewish Pegasus, she is attached to Kandinsky’s blue equestrian and her uncle’s racetrack. Shifting from art to law, Leah feels “exiled from a world of tints and pigments.” Rider and writer, McCormack colours the law with painterly prose. Kandinsky’s lines get translated into Expressionistic and Impressionistic law in the novel. Louis, the senior lawyer, is able “to weave strands of words around a reluctant judge,” while he or Nate form “a strand running through her work life” – the novel’s DNA rich in implication.

McCormack balances the scales of justice with scales of music and blue brushstrokes. She invokes Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, the “lawyer for the Jews.” (One wrong note: the Hebrew blessing begins with “Baruch atah.”) Her protagonist gets singed in The Singing Forest, a page-turner with substance, where troubled family trees testify, find new growth, and branch out. She assembles an eloquence of lawyers, cures glass, guides us through forest and garden, courtroom and kitchen, and sings of Jewish ritual and avuncular care.

Judith McCormack was born in Evanston, and grew up in Toronto, with several years in Montreal and Vancouver. She is Jewish through her mother, and her maternal grandparents came from Belarus and Lithuania, with her father contributing his Scots-Irish heritage. Her writing has been shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Fiction Prize, the Journey Prize and the Amazon First Novel Award, and her short stories have appeared in the Harvard ReviewDescantThe FiddleheadComing Attractions and Best Canadian Stories. She also has several law degrees, which first introduced her to story-telling, and is a recipient of the Law Society Medal and The Guthrie Award for access to justice.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Sept. 21 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 304 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964316
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964319

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