Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
It would be an over-simplification to describe Cynthia Ozick’s elegant new novel as a Jane Eyre narrative relocated to Depression-era New York but not an inaccuracy. After the death of her father Rosie Meadows goes to live with her only living relative, her cousin Bertram. But his attentions are soon diverted by his strident communist sympathiser girlfriend Ninel (that’s Lenin spelt backwards) and Rosie is forced to take a job in the household of the Mitwisser clan, a family of German Jewish refugees reluctantly transported to the American East Coast.
The Mitwissers are an odd brood, inevitably disturbed by the oppression that made them flee their home country. Professor Mitwisser is a rather cold man, stubborn and offhand, whose primary concern is his research into an obscure Semitic sect, the Karaites. Mrs Mitwisser, once also a respected academic, has allowed her fears to dominate her world, to swamp her mind; she has been overwhelmed by anxiety about all they have lost, in terms of dignity and self sufficiency as well as material things, and fears of all they could still lose. Shut away in her room she has become increasingly detached from her children who scamper through the house unhindered. Only stern eldest daughter Anneliese seems to have come to terms with the realities of their new life, though her pride initially causes clashes between Rosie and herself.
The Mitwisser family, much to Mrs Mitwisser’s despair, have become financially reliant on the children’s former tutor, James A’Bair, a Christopher Robin figure, haunted by the enormously successful books his father based around some idealised sketches of his infant son. As a result James has never been able to escape this image of the ‘Bear Boy,’ the child in his father’s drawings that the world adored; he has struggled with this other, fictional identity all his life. The character of A’Bair is rich with potential but he never seems to fit comfortably into Ozick’s gently compelling narrative, he remains a weak link in an otherwise wonderfully imagined world.
Ozick succeeds admirably in paying homage to the likes of Dickens and the Brontës while also managing to say something new about the American immigrant experience. The Mitwissers are a proud lot, sometimes haughty and often arrogant, but their world has been whipped out from under them and they are dealing with this in the best way they can. The characters are all warmly realised. Professor Mitwisser is far from the fearsome figure he initially appears to be. Cousin Bertram is a rumpled, kind-hearted creation with something of a selfish streak. Rosie herself however remains something of a question mark though Ozick imbues her with much of Eyre’s pluck and practicality; ultimately this is the Mitwissers’ story and the novel feels like only the beginning of Rosie’s narrative arc. As a result there is no “Reader, I married him” moment though there is resolution of sorts.
Ozick (author of The Puttermesser Papers, Trust and a considerable body of superb criticism) is an intelligent, delightful writer who has successfully taken this familiar tale and infused it with colour and relevance; Heir to the Glimmering World is a considerable achievement.