Celestial Events: On Rachel Barenbaum’s “A Bend in the Stars”
By Jean HeyMay 16, 2019
A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum
But as the skies darkened, traffic jams clogged the roads. Millions tweeted, blogged, broadcast, live-streamed. From a cruise ship, Bonnie Tyler belted out her signature song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” to the swaying, bespectacled crowd. Not since 1776 had America been awarded an eclipse all its own, and for one sweet day we were one nation under God, indivisible, heads tilted in awe and anticipation.
It is hard to imagine a celestial symbol better suited to a dramatic tale than a blackened sun. Shakespeare and Milton used it, and so have American writers from Mark Twain to Stephen King. Now add to that list Rachel Barenbaum, who places an eclipse squarely at the center of her ambitious, sweeping debut, A Bend in the Stars. Set in Russia at the beginning of World War I, her novel takes us on a harrowing ride in pursuit of the solar eclipse of 1914.
The significance of these celestial events radiates far beyond science. As the Earl of Gloucester warns in King Lear, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good for us.” For some, an eclipse is a sign of the devil; for others, it foreshadows the end of the world. And for one of this novel’s protagonists, Vanya Abramov — a passionate young scientist whose hazardous journey we follow over 450 pages — it holds his future. Through it he hopes to disprove Einstein’s early theories about relativity and to secure a life in the United States, where his family can live safely.
Vanya is convinced that Einstein’s original theory is doubly flawed: it failed to take into account the effects of gravity, and it was based on the assumption that objects move at constant speeds. Early on he tells his skeptical sister, Miri: “Gravity bends space and light. The eclipse will prove it. And that proof, it will change everything.”
Even though he is barely out of his teens, there is something of the mad professor in Vanya — his disheveled appearance, his obsession with equations, his distracted air. His sister points out that his scheme sounds delusional, and the reader is likely to agree. He has no way of getting to the eclipse; he doesn’t have the necessary calculations to disprove Einstein; if he actually witnesses the eclipse, he needs photographs of light bending in order to make his case. And for that last, crucial step, he has to rely on an American scientist who has never heard of him.
As if all this uncertainty weren’t deterrent enough, Vanya also faces a powerful enemy at home, a creepy character named Kir. He is the chair of Vanya’s department at the university, a brooding presence with enormous hands. Kir hovers around Vanya waiting to snatch his latest calculations. Already he has stolen a batch of Vanya’s notes and published them under his own name, to great acclaim. When Vanya protested, Kir whispered, “Remember you’re a Jew.” Antisemitism hangs over this novel as an oppressive, ever-present shadow, embodied in any number of characters eager to destroy the idealistic and daring siblings. Through graphic descriptions, Barenbaum brings into sharp focus the threats and assaults Jews endured under the tsarist regime.
At the beginning of A Bend in the Stars, Miri and Vanya are living with their grandmother, a wise, tough woman who serves as the local matchmaker to the Jewish community of Kovno (present-day Kaunas). She escaped the pogroms of Odessa and now sees signs of the same violent hatred infiltrating this town. She says to her grandchildren: “Death will come, again. They’ll blame us Jews. For war. For starvation. Cold. Haven’t I taught you? Hasn’t the past been loud enough?”
The tsar’s army is rounding up Jewish men to use as fodder in the war. Vanya signs up before they can conscript him. That way, he reasons, he can request a post near where the American scientist is expected to witness the eclipse. Miri thinks her brother has made a deadly mistake, that on the battlefield he’d be lost in his equations and wouldn’t survive. Neither, she thinks, would her handsome fiancé, Yuri, who is a surgeon and Miri’s mentor at the local Jewish hospital. She sees in him a softness that she adores, and she is stunned to learn that he, too, has signed up for the army, and that he vows to accompany her brother on his quixotic quest.
Meanwhile, Miri is reluctant to leave Kovno herself, despite her grandmother’s warnings. Recently she has been promoted from doctor to surgeon — a rare accomplishment for a woman in Russia, and unheard of in this town. Just as this most deeply held wish is realized, her family urges her to leave, and she resists. But within days of Vanya and Yuri’s departure, Miri’s life takes a dramatic turn and she has no choice but to flee and go searching for her brother and fiancé. Accompanying her is Sasha Petrov, a dashing defector from the army whom she rescues and hides in her grandmother’s cellar.
Some elements of this setup seem unnecessarily convoluted, and at times the reader’s patience is strained as Barenbaum reiterates the novel’s premise. But as Miri boards her first train with Sasha and we begin the siblings’ harrowing parallel journeys, Barenbaum tightens the pressure and pace. We are with Miri and Vanya every step of the way, racing across Russia, leaping from train to train, and hurrying through short, tense chapters. Like a constantly ticking clock, the chapters written from Vanya’s point of view begin with a reminder of how many days, how many minutes, how many hours remain until the all-important eclipse. In the chapters written from Miri’s perspective, tension comes from the grueling trials she and Sasha endure to reach her brother and fiancé, and a growing attraction that is unspoken but hard to ignore.
In many ways, A Bend in the Stars reads like a folktale: the young heroes face an arduous journey and a difficult quest; they are brilliant and good-looking and pure of spirit. The villains, of course, are odious and ugly — one is described as having a nose and cheeks “littered with broken blood vessels and pores that looked like gaping holes.” But this is not purely a good-versus-evil adventure. A third of the way through, a wily sailor named Dima appears, and with him, the story gains texture. Dima is rough but endearing, a schemer out to make as much money as he can. If that means double-crossing the “pathetic soldiers,” well, that’s just the cost of doing business. When it seems Dima has betrayed Yuri and Vanya, Yuri takes him for a Jew-hater and asks, “Why does it still have to come down to that — to being Jewish?”
Barenbaum names the five main sections of the novel after months in the Jewish calendar, which itself is based on astronomical phenomena. In so doing, she threads into the novel’s fabric two central themes — what it means to be a Jew in Russia in the early 1900s, and the power of celestial forces. “Life doesn’t travel in a straight line,” we are told early on, and Barenbaum herself bends time and space by bracketing the novel with chapters set in modern-day America, which provide a startling and rewarding denouement.
Some of the novel’s best writing is in descriptions of place, whether it be a horrific hospital scene, a train station coated in coal ash, a city’s bejeweled spires, or a river that “smelled of waste and moved so slowly sticks oozed past like slugs.” Barenbaum embeds the reader in a three-dimensional world of slums, cities, and war-ravaged countryside, far from the gauzy shtetl tableaux one remembers from Fiddler on the Roof. She is equally deft at capturing dramatic events. A tussle in an alley, a long-anticipated kiss, a woman giving birth — in simple phrases, Barenbaum builds toward these moments, lingers on them, and wrings out every particle of suspense. The eclipse itself she handles with straightforward effectiveness:
The last shadows fell over the fruit trees in the orchard. Light came through the leaves in the quarter-moon shape of the eclipse.
A black veil slid over to the house and covered the dacha.
The animals that had been so loud just seconds earlier, stilled.
Day turned to night.
Occasionally, the writing is overly intense, as when a character describes an eclipse as a passionate act, “the kind that makes a woman want to jump into the bath with a man after a sweaty day.” Conversely, at times the writing goes limp. In one instance night is simply described as being “as dark as dark can be.” As the story reaches its conclusion, Barenbaum rushes through events and I found myself wishing she’d slow down and allow the story to breathe. The narrative of Dima the sailor, in particular, gets short shrift and is wrapped up in a summary. But these are minor complaints. The novel offers an epic adventure that spins through rich terrain; several engrossing love stories, including one between remarkable siblings; and a scientific intrigue that pits dark ambition against a passionate love of science.
From my deck in Massachusetts on that August afternoon in 2017, I watched the day turn mildly sullen. Crescent-shaped shadows spilled from the colander that I held in my hands. Even though mine was the slimmest of partial eclipses, I felt its power, and my smallness. Likewise, with the eclipse of 1914 as both backdrop and main event, A Bend in the Stars reveals our collective impotence against the whims of the universe. And yet, the characters Barenbaum brings to life demonstrate resilience in the face of prejudice, steadfastness in the face of defeat, and the ability to love even when the world has cracked with hate.
Jean Hey’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Plain Dealer, The Chicago Tribune, and Solstice Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel set in South Africa.
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