Written by Winnipeg-born author Adele Wiseman, a close friend of Margaret Laurence, the book is set in a Jewish immigrant community of an anonymous Canadian city. At the centre of the story is Abraham the immigrant butcher, a stubborn, devout patriarch who brings his wife Sarah and son Isaac to the hope of a new life. As the names suggests, Wiseman is telling a story that deals with biblical themes and profound questions.
“One of the things I want to do,” she'd said, “is explore the absolutely best reason for doing the worst thing.”
What are the worst things humans can do, and what are the motivations which drive them? These are the questions Wiseman explores – and she does so with masterful character description that presents people in their frail humanity, their limitations and flaws, but also their dignity and heroic potential.
One of the strengths of this book, which won the Governor General’s Award, is the dialogue and the authentic voices Wiseman gives to her characters, even the secondary ones. The writing is careful, even too loaded at times, but vivid and poignant. The plot advances slowly; we are aware of a tapestry unfolding before us and of the rich complexity of narrative weaving it together.
This novel raises questions of devotion, loyalty, faith and sacrifice, yet leaves them to be answered by the reader. Wiseman is compassionate in her character portrayal but uncompromisingly real. There are no saints and angels here, only people struggling through a troubled world.
The main protagonist, Abraham, is driven by his need to understand and interpret divine guidance. Faced with exceptionally cruel circumstances, his faith is stretched to the edge of reason, and beyond.
“When a human being cries out to you, no matter who it is, don’t judge him, don’t harm him, or you turn away from God Himself,” he says in his final understanding.
This book is a portrait of the human cries and the downfall of a man so obsessed with seeking the voice of God that he cannot hear them.