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Here is Still Here by Sivan Slapak

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

This first book by author Sivan Slapak is presented as a collection of short stories, but it can almost be read as a novel.

Here is Still Here is divided into two main parts: “Jerusalem” and “Montreal,” which track the experiences of the main character, Isabel Rosen, through her twenty years of living in Jerusalem and then her subsequent return to her native city of Montreal. A third, very short section is “Coda: Vilna–Montreal,” the transcription into English of what Slapak’s paternal grandmother recorded in Yiddish about surviving the Nazi occupation of her hometown of Vilna (now Vilnius), Lithuania.

Here is Still Here can’t really be said to have a strict timeline as such, but it moves through the years—with the occasional flashback—in a fairly straightforward manner, recounting the nuances of the relationships of Isabel with friends, family, and lovers. The voice is of the mature Isabel looking back, but the experiences are described in their immediacy.

Isabel’s first years in Jerusalem are marked by enthusiastic partying, drinking, and sex with a string of boyfriends. The accounts of these adventures are punctuated by her memories of growing up in Montreal with a pretty younger sister and a Holocaust-survivor grandmother who preferred to speak in Yiddish and told the girls of the family members she had lost in the war.

The stories progress, and Isabel grows older. The young partygoers she hung out with begin to marry and have children. Isabel does neither.

In contrasting her life’s path with those of others, Isabel often reflects on the choices she has or hasn’t made, in particular her role as a woman. Must she opt for marriage and motherhood, as the edicts of her faith would seem to require, or can she choose otherwise? Are one’s choices in life ordained, reasoned, or accidental? She comes to no firm conclusion, saying only, “At least this is fully familiar: the habit of devising some awkward private negotiations between my sacred and secular selves—complicated and significant, but only in my thoughts.”

But while Isabel accepts the fact that life is a series of changes, she also acknowledges that there are things that, once experienced, are thereafter held within oneself—emotions and memories that continue to resonate while much else is left in the past.

There is a simmering quality to Slapak’s work—issues percolating but not resolved. Emotions mentioned but not overly analysed, so their power is not dampened. One senses from Here is Still Here that life is a continuous search—for identity, love, belonging. One that has not ended.

The inclusion of the coda raises an interesting question. Given Isabel’s grandmother’s numerous references to the horrors of her past and given also that the structure of Here is Still Here parallels Slapak’s own life—she was born in Montreal, moved to Jerusalem as a young woman, and lived there for twenty years before returning to Montreal in 2013—is the line between fact and fiction here more than a bit porous? It’s an intriguing thought.

Here is Still Here is published by Linda Leith Publishing.


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