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The Speed of Light

The Speed of Light coverThe Speed of Light, Elizabeth Rosner, 2001.

“The changes began on a Wednesday, miércoles, the day that sounds like miracles.”

I wonder if miracles are still profound when you know they are coming. This was my first thought after reading the opening line of Elizabeth Rosner’s 2001 book The Speed of Light.

This foreshadowing at the outset begins a journey of curiosity about and growing faith in the author. And she delivers: Although I knew a miracle was coming, it didn’t dilute the sheer joy I felt when I reached the end of the book awash in tears.

I almost didn’t read The Speed of Light when I learned it dealt with the most horrific of traumas. Books get under my skin and enter my dreams. Did I want to let this one in? But the subject, the mysterious transmission of pain between generations, and the device Rosner uses to tell her story, three voices written in the first person, drew me in. I know a book is good when I can’t wait to get back to it.

The setup for the story is simple. A brother and sister live in two apartments, one above the other. Each has found a way to live with the terrible legacy inherited from their father, a Holocaust survivor, who took his secrets with him when he died. Julian, a physics prodigy, has retreated from the world. He has inherited his father’s sorrow in a strange way.

I was my father’s grief. It was what he gave to me, his only son. He didn’t mean to, but it came to me without his permission. He gave up his language and his homeland, everything he could leave behind. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin like blood. It wasn’t his fault. He would have taken it back if he could. But it was mine now, as if I had lived it all. At times even my dreams felt inherited … His actual stories I never heard. My father held all the shards of glass inside, where the edges cut him to pieces.

Julian numbs himself with a “menagerie of televisions,” eleven screens arrayed on his apartment wall. He seeks escape, too, in his work of compiling a dictionary of physics. The words become a fourth voice, a dispassionate series of scientific definitions which impart a surprising metaphoric presence. This is done with a light touch for those of us who don’t necessarily speak the language of physical science.

Julian’s sister Paula learns at a young age that her voice is her ticket to escape the sadness in her home. She reaches out to the world by singing, her spirit as light as Julian’s is dark.

All I could think about was music, the way singing gave shape to my life. I didn’t know anything about fear, about safety. That was my brother’s universe, not mine. I lived in the air, buoyant with sound.

Into this sibling relationship comes a grieving woman from an unnamed Central American country, whose pain and loss are hers alone, and not long past. Sola has lived through a terrible massacre in which she has lost her entire family. As a housekeeper for Paula, she finds solace in the work of her hands.

I watch my hands moving through soap and water, I feel the soft cloth of rags and see the way the surfaces of wood and glass and granite shine. I learn again about breathing, about touching and moving, making beauty in a space. I tell myself it is good when the work is only in my hands and not pulling too hard from the inside.

Sola’s intergenerational knowledge is healing for her, rather than a torment as it is for Julian.

My grandmother often visits my dreams. She is the only one who comes to me from the land of the dead, and she speaks to me in the language I no longer speak. When my grandmother touches my hair in my sleep, I feel like a lost child. There is never enough of her to comfort me.

Sola comes to stay in the downstairs apartment when Paula goes on a European tour and asks her to keep an eye on Julian. The story rolls forth from there, each of the characters speaking it from their own point of view.

I wanted to understand how this was written after hearing the author mention it during a recorded workshop. I was impressed with her sensitivity to editing, or what she called “cutting and polishing.” When she mentioned the challenge of writing her first book with three points of view, I was intrigued. I had tried this myself and had to table it.

In the printed book, she decided to show each of the three voices printed in different fonts. As a lettering artist and maker of artist’s books, I am fascinated by the way books can present their stories. Deviations from standard formats often prove the most interesting, so I was curious to see how this worked.

I began by reading the ebook version of The Speed of Light. The three fonts worked well, as long as I stayed with the “Publisher Default” setting so the fonts displayed properly. As I read, I wondered if different fonts were necessary because the characters signal their identities in the first sentence or two. But when the voices change quickly the fonts prove helpful.

Julian and Paula’s voices are in serif fonts and can be difficult to tell apart. Small caps at the beginning of each of Julian’s sections identify him as the primary narrator, and his voice is the first and last in the book. Sola’s voice is the most distinctive. She tells her story in English as a second language, in the present tense with generous use of the gerund. Her voice in a sans serif font is well-matched with the clarity of her presence.

Speed of Light page spread

The audiobook, released earlier this year, neatly solves the structure of the three voices. If ever there was a book meant to be read aloud, it is this one. Hearing the story establishes an intimacy with the characters, bypassing the seeing mind. The story depends on the actor’s voices, always tricky, but especially with an ensemble. Elizabeth Rosner narrates Paula’s part, and the voice actors Ana Clements and Craig Van Ness speak the roles of Sola and Julian.

Rosner’s theme is familial trauma, particularly how embodied inheritance can affect a descendant in physical, neurological, and emotional ways. She knows this because she has lived it: She is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, making her book “emotionally, not factually, autobiographical.” Today, with the label “epigenetic,” the culture has caught up with the knowledge that so many of us have understood for years.

The ongoing presence of the ginkgo tree in The Speed of Light roots the story in the natural world. When Sola asks Julian why he planted the ginkgo outside the apartment, he tells her the gingko is “one of the oldest trees in the world … a living fossil.” She understands “this beautiful tree is like a skeleton of the past, another memory of the dead.” The gingko leaves on the cover of The Speed of Light also illustrate the cover of Rosner’s most recent book, Survivor Cafe, which continues to explore, in essay form, the themes of genocide, ancestral tragedy and “the labyrinth of memory.” These two works bookend her writing career in a deeply wonderful way.

“The point is what the body carries of memory, sometimes not even your own experience,” Rosner says. The initial release of her book in 2001 was overshadowed a week later by the tragedy of September 11. But the book’s theme of epigenetic inheritance is eerily relevant for the many children who grew up in the aftermath of that trauma.

The audiobook features a lovely interview with the author by Becky Parker Geist, expanding the rich discussion two decades ago with Richard Zimler at the end of the paperback edition, also in the ebook. The new interview captures fascinating insights into the recording process, including how the all-important first sentence made a difference in the narrative interpretation of the text.

The three interweaving voices in The Speed of Light embody the epigraph of the book:

Hasidic teaching says there are three ways to mourn: through tears, through silence, and by turning sorrow into song.

The stories of the three protagonists ultimately speak of the redemption that can be found by connecting with each other. As the author says in the Q and A at the end the 2001 interview, “All you need to activate compassion is a single story … Suffering happens to individuals, one at a time.” Even if you don’t create art about it, sharing the pain in some way can help heal it. Sola expresses this beautifully:

… I feel as though the stones inside me are a little softer in the path of the river, a little smoother now from letting the words pour out, so the remembering is not only a wall around my heart but is open. A little. Because now there is Diego, who knows a piece, and now there is Julian, who knows how to listen, how to be a witness too. So I do not have to hold it all alone, even if I know I am still the only one to carry [it] …

I was so moved by this book I bought a physical copy to let me savor the typography and exquisite cover and revisit the author’s beautiful use of language. I can fan through and touch the pages of a real book, and I can lend it out.

In the end though, it is the story that makes The Speed of Light a keeper, not its appearance. The painstaking revelation of the story is accomplished through the judicious use of dreams and metaphor to convey the passing of knowledge between generations. It is a dark novel, but its sadness is lifted by its emotional honesty and the sheer beauty of the prose.

By sharing her story, Elizabeth Rosner helped this reader come to terms with her own troubled inheritance. I hope others who read The Speed of Light will experience this healing too. “This book has come to its full voice now,” she says. “It’s a book ABOUT voice, about storytelling, about allowing your sorrow to be a song.”