Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The title of this novel comes from a quote by the British psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott, the full version of which serves as the epigraph: “It is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” Author Ariela Freedman is thus declaring her intentions before one reads a word of the main text: People like to keep things private, hidden from the world, but keeping those things hidden may have negative effects on others.
The narrator, Alice Stein, is looking back on the period in the late 1990s when she was in graduate school in New York City. The prologue sets out the basics: Alice’s paternal grandmother, Helen, has just died in Brooklyn. In cleaning out her grandmother’s effects, Alice comes across a mysterious photograph and love poem from a man in New Mexico, some jewellery and coins, and a book, Every Woman’s Standard Medical Guide.
Alice admits that she never knew her grandmother well, barely at all in fact, so the objects she found intrigue her. Where and how did Helen get them? Who is the man in the photograph? It also seems that Helen may have been confined to an institution at some point shortly after the birth of her first child, Alice’s father. Why? Alice’s mother does not know, and Alice’s father is dead.
The early part of the book focuses on Alice’s life as a student and is filled with the names of writers and theorists one would naturally encounter while pursuing an advanced degree in English. Freud, Wittgenstein, Hegel, Walter Benjamin, and others pop up in the narrative here and there, as if their ideas are so well known as to be part of casual conversation. But as Alice also says, “That was how we all talked then.”
That the literary theorist Jacques Derrida makes an early cameo appearance as a guest lecturer is initially worrisome. He is giving a class dedicated solely to a story by another literary theorist, Maurice Blanchot, L’instant de ma mort (The Instant of My Death). As Alice says “The first sentence sounded like a fable and posed the paradox of a young man prevented from dying by death itself.” Derrida’s lectures are “surreal and meditative” and he likes to talk about what he calls “a posthumous existence,” that is, how people affect us even after they have died.
Alice says Derrida is interested in “the ambiguity of fiction and autobiography,” and indeed one gets a sense that this second novel by Freedman may have autobiographical elements, much as her first (Arabic for Beginners) did. The book is dedicated to her late father, who, like Alice’s father in the book, died much too young. A reference to time spent in New York is in the acknowledgements, and certainly, Freedman’s knowledge of New York City is vivid with regard to how it felt to live there in the 1990s.
So is Freedman embarking on some sort of self-consciously literary exercise that for most people will provide a sure cure for insomnia? Fear not, the non-academic world around Alice begins to take over, and Freedman quickly sloughs off Derrida, as if to say, “You can’t deconstruct life.”
Indeed Alice’s life beyond the lecture halls is full. She teaches and interacts with a whole range of people, students, neighbours and others. Her reticent student, Bo; her roommate, Brenda; her lovers; an eleven-year-old neighbour named Persephone who attaches herself to Alice; Persephone’s divorced mother, Fiona, and father, Hank. Each of these characters gives Alice a first impression that masks other things, and little by little, through small revelations on what they are hiding, Alice gets clues to that other reality for each of them.
All the while, of course, Alice is trying to find out more about her grandmother. Alice’s memories of Helen herself and then the reminiscences of Bella, a childhood friend of Helen’s in Poland before World War II, begin to fill in the gaps. Bella, in particular, reveals a lot about Helen both in person and in writing, but there are also snippets of her own hidden past.
So what is Freedman really up to? She poses questions but is clearly aware that there will be no definitive answers, only glimmers of partial understanding that nonetheless help the reader to appreciate and empathize with these various disparate lives. The result is far from being an academic exercise that could only be read to the end if required by a professor’s syllabus. A Joy to be Hidden turns out to be touching and insightful—both down-to-earth and very hard to put down.
A Joy to be Hidden is published by Linda Leith Publishing.