The Illuminated Soul
Aryeh Lev Stollman
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The Illuminated Soul

Aryeh Lev Stollman
Riverhead Books
288 pages
March 2003
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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The luminous prose of The Illuminated Soul has found a strong following among readers conversant with Jewish religious traditions, history, rituals and folklore, but for the uninitiated, the story is somewhat clouded, as there is not much explanation of particulars (which would have been helpful for this reader). However, author Aryeh Lev Stollman does have a gift for description, wrapping a tale in myth and mystery.

The Second World War has just ended when a stranger comes to the door of a home in the Jewish community in Windsor, Canada. The statuesque young visitor will change the lives of the two young boys and their widowed mother, as they happily accept Eva Higashi as a temporary boarder. When the mysterious and beautiful Eva steps across the threshold and into their observant Jewish home, she carries with her a much sought-after document, a fifth century copy of the Augsburg Miscellany, an illuminated manuscript and one of the most beautiful examples of medieval literature. Fleeing Prague before the destruction of museum treasures by the Nazis, Eva has taken the manuscript with her, rootless herself as the legendary Wandering Jew.

Regaling them with a stream of stories from her travels, Eva becomes the goddess of her own fable, using her innate cleverness, travel experience and education to inform the family via parables and instruct them in the ancient teachings as proscribed by the God of Abraham. The theme of the novel is a continuing explanation of God's word as expressed in the Old Testament or other revered texts. I would consider this series of parables or "tracts" more of a teaching exercise, with the occasional obsequious character engaging in dialog to further the argument.

The question is, does the novel's structure hold up to scrutiny? For many, the answer is yes. For me, although I love the elaborate setting and nostalgic treatment of 1940's images, I have a sense of traveling through the author's mind, his interests and diversions, rather than a solidly plotted story. Still, there is a certain fascination in the journey.

Drawing on scripture, arcane references and Jewish folklore, this coat of many colors has no center. The tale drifts along, veiled in obscurity, evil intent and Holocaust memories, all of which are portrayed brilliantly. The problem is, The Illuminated Soul is a fairytale, one more effort to evade fate, like a tale spun from the lips of Scheherazade.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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