This is a novel written as a reminiscence and a re-creation. An older man, after writing a book about an experience he had as a teenager, retells the experience and reveals the effects it had on his subsequent life. He imagines and researches episodes in the life of the woman who boarded with them for a short time, and who had such a strange effect on he and his family. This twice-removed structure helps to bring a dreamlike quality to the narrative, and the boarder, Eva Laquedem Higashi, takes on the myterious aspect of a visiting angel.
Joseph is 14 when she arrives, and his family has suffered a series of losses. His father has died recently. His younger brother Asa has been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. One of Joseph's few friends has been sent to a mental institution. The book is set in a Jewish neighborhood in post-War Canada; references to what has been lost in terms of people and possessions is a constant subtext. Joseph focuses on religion, taking the task of reading the Torah portion with utmost seriousness (and obsessiveness). Asa refuses to use his eyes, so as not to wear them out. His mother, Adele, is a tall but ungainly echo of the wandering Eva, a European Jew via Japan who in crossing the Canadian border accidentally violates the terms of her visa and is thus ejected from yet another country. Her one treasure is a beautiful illuminated 15th century manuscript, the Augsburg Miscellany, a family heirloom which she smuggled out of Europe. The beauty of this object, and of the woman herself, sheds a golden light on each member of the small family in a different way. She brings them a sense of the possible, a sense of the transcendence of everyday life.
The characters are fully realized in a very little space. Impressively written, fully enjoyed, many-layered.
In the end I was disappointed by the mundanity of Joseph and Asa's subsequent lives. Joseph goes on to become a neurologist who, having made an important breakthrough early in his career, skates on his laurels from then on. Asa works as an illustrator and then goes blind. They take care of each other, do not marry. It seems that they only break through to that plane of existence on which they briefly dwelled when Joseph writes his memoir and spends time speaking about, and seeking for, Eva Higashi. What's the point of this transcendence when it is only fleeting and temporary? I wanted Joseph and Asa to go on to have beautiful, interesting lives. I wanted some positive permanent change to have been wrought. Instead they almost seemed trapped by their fascination with her.