Monday 20 June 2022

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Review: From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos (#Ad)

A photo of the From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos hardback on top of the proof, the former on a diagonal to the left, the latter on a diagonal to the right. They're on top of a large Progress Pride flag, witht he chevron pointing to the bottom right. The books are on the chevron, so they white, pink and blue lines for trans people are visible. There is a small rainbow pin resting on the left of the proof.

I was sent a proof for free by Harper360YA for the purposes of providing an honest review.

From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos

Published: 8th March 2022 | Publisher: Balzer + Bray | Source: Publisher
Rebecca Podos’ Website

Lambda Literary Award–-winning author Rebecca Podos returns with a rich, transporting, genre-bending contemporary Jewish fantasy about the power of history, the complicated nature of family, and the search for identity amidst it all.

Hannah’s whole life has been spent in motion. Her mother has kept her and her brother, Gabe, on the road for as long as she can remember, leaving a trail of rental homes and faded relationships behind them. No roots, no family but one another, and no explanations.

All that changes on Hannah’s seventeenth birthday when she wakes up transformed, a pair of golden eyes with knife-slit pupils blinking back at her from the mirror—the first of many such impossible mutations. Promising that she knows someone who can help, her mother leaves Hannah and Gabe behind to find a cure. But as the days turn to weeks and their mother doesn’t return, they realize it’s up to them to find the truth.

What they discover is a family they never knew and a history more tragic and fantastical than Hannah could have dreamed—one that stretches back to her grandmother’s childhood in Prague under the Nazi occupation, and beyond, into the realm of Jewish mysticism and legend. As the past comes crashing into the present, Hannah must hurry to unearth their family’s secrets—and confront her own hidden legacy in order to break the curse and save the people she loves most, as well as herself.

Rebecca Podos, award-winning author of Like Water, returns with a contemporary fantasy of enduring love, unfathomable loss, and the power of stories to hold us together when it seems that nothing else can.
From The StoryGraph.

The StoryGraph | Goodreads

I read From Dust, A Flame by Rebecca Podos back in March. I'm only reviewing it now because I loved it so, so much, it was difficult to know where to start, and how to put this all-encompassing love into words. It's absolutely incredible, and every time I think about it... it's just such a gorgeous story. But it's Pride Month, and as a sapphic story, there really isn't a better time to share a review. So please bear with me as I try to put !!!! into words, and prepare yourself for an essay, because I have an awful lot to say.

Ever since her dad died, Hannah's mum, Malka, has had her and her brother Gabe moving for most of the life, with no real explanation as to why. They've never really settled anywhere, have had no real friends, and no family beyond each other. But on the morning of her 17th birthday, everything changes; Hannah wakes up to find her eyes have changed. They're yellow, with catlike slit pupils. She has no idea what is happening to her, but her mum thinks she knows someone who can help. She leaves, telling Hannah and Gabe to stay home, not to leave, she'll be back with help in a few days, tops. But days turn into weeks, each day brings a new mutation, with no word from their mum, and no way to reach her. They're starting to really worry, when something comes from her in the mail; the death announcement of her grandmother, Jitka, her mum's mother. The first clue that that they have family out there, and they're too late. With no other ideas, Hannah and Gabe decide to go to Fox Hollow, where her grandmother and extended family live, and see if their mum is there. She isn't, but what they do find is a large family, a family history involving great tragedy, and a whole load of secrets. And a girl Hannah is drawn to, who might just be the key to the answers they seek, and where their mum has gone.

From Dust, A Flame is very much a Jewish fantasy; remove Judaism from the story, and there is no story. The story is for the most part told from Hannah's perspective, but we also get flashbacks from Malka's perspective from when she was a teenager, and Hannah has dreams of her grandmother Jitka's memories as a teenager in Nazi-occupied Prague. It's a story that spans decades and generations and countries. There are so many Jewish threads - Jewish mysticism; stories from Jewish mythology and folklore; Jewish faith and tradition; Jewish history, specifically relating to the Holocaust - and it could easily feel like there are a lot of different things going on, but Podos manages to deftly weave them all together into one cohesive story that is absolutely gripping. From Dust, A Flame is a love letter to Judaism, and it's absolutely beautiful.

Because Malka never discussed her family, Hannah has no idea that she's Jewish. As such, she and Gabe learn about Judaism when they meets their family, as they sits Shiva for Jitka, and are included in Shabbat and Havdalah rituals - and I learnt with them. It might seem strange that for a story that has Judaism at it's heart to have a protagonist who knows nothing about it, but that itself is an important part of the story. There's a reason she didn't know, why Malka never brough it up. But as someone who isn't Jewish, I really appreciated learning alongside Hannah. I'm not the target audience in this respect, but it was so lovely to learn about Judaism this way. I'm an atheist, but I'm quite spiritual, and there was familiarity in the ritual aspects, and even in some of the mysticism that's discussed - Ari, a girl they meet at Synagogue, and the daughter of their mum's former best friend, talks about Jewish mysticism. Her grandmother, Ida was an opshprekherke, a healer with knowledge of Jewish folk medicine, and while everything she did was related to her faith, it feels very similar to wise women and cunning folk of old in the UK. And it's just all so beautiful, I grew up C of E and went to a Catholic school, so Christianity and church services/mass is my experience of religion and faith. And Judaism just seems so much warmer; having rituals at home that led by ordinary people, involving everyone, rather than just services at synagogue led by the rabbi. There just seems to be much more of a community feel to it all. There's so much more to Judaism than what I have experience of in Christianity. And Podos writes with such love, you can feel it pouring off the pages. I just found it so moving, their love of their faith and their people seamlessly threaded through this fantastic story, and I can't see anyone reading From Dust, A Flame and not being touched by it.

'"Judaism is more than religion, you know. More even than ritual and tradition. It's family." The rabbi smiles down at our blank faces. "We are all the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Leah. We are all united by the actions and sacrifices and the covenant of our ancestors. We were all born into the ancient story of our people, which still unfolds today. Know this, and everything else can be learned."' (p80)

'"It's weird to say a religion is about more than God, but that feels true. It's, like, a shared history, and it belongs to me, and it belongs to you too, even if you never knew about it until just now. Because the things that happened to your grandparents and great-grandparents, they shaped your life, in some way. So you don't have to, I don't know, throw on a yarmulke and dance the hora around the town green to identify that way. It's yours to claim, and nobody can do it for you or take it from you."' (p154-155)

Podos has a wonderful knack of writing characters who have different opinions and experiences - Ari herself is an atheist; Ari's mum doesn't believe in Jewish mysticism, and her mother's "obsession" made her angry; and Hannah and Gabe not really understanding what's happening during Sabbat or the Hebrew spoken at the synagogue - but in a way that shows a lot of love and respect. And that love and respect is given to Jitka. Because while this isn't a story about the Holocaust, this story wouldn't exist in the form it does without it. It's such huge part of Jewish history, such a horrific tragedy, and that history is so much a part of the lives of Jews because the trauma is felt through the generations. And it's through Jitka that Podos acknowledges the genocide of their people, and the effect that is passed down. Jikta's entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. At 16, still a child, she got out through the Kindertransport, but everyone else in her family was stuck in Nazi-occupied Prague, and they were all killed. And when I say all, I mean all; her nine siblings, her parents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins - all, killed. She was left completely and utterly alone, and her grief has never left her. Because it's not just grief is it? They didn't just die, they were murdered, and they were murdered because they were Jews. This is trauma. And it's trauma that was with Jitka always. As such, it effected her parenting; she was so terrified of losing the people she loved again, she was a very strict parent. Her children had very little freedom, there was so little they were allowed to do, and for no real understandable reason other than Jitka's all-encompassing fear. It effected Malka's relationship with her mother, and in turn, it effected how she raised her own children, and their relationships. It's intergenerational trauma. Podos acknowledges that the way Jitka coped and raised her children wasn't healthy, but they also extend to her so much compassion and understanding for all she's been through, and in doing so, all Holocaust survivors. It's so difficult to read Jitka's memories, it's so upsetting, horrifying, but in them Podos honours those killed and those who survived.

This isn't background simply, though. Podos didn't include it because, due to the timelines, there's no way Jitka wouldn't have been effected by the Holocaust. It's more than that; the Holocaust directly effects this specific story. What happens in this book wouldn't have happened without it. As I said before, all these threads are woven together into this story. It all has meaning and purpose, it all effects each other. And it's such a brilliant story! I was completely engrossed, wondering what was happening to Hannah, why Malka cut off all contact with her family, where she was now, what on earth was going on and how it was all connected. I adored the relationship between Hannah and Gabe; Gabe is just the sweetest older brother, and loves Hannah fiercely, though they of course have their ups and downs like all siblings. Gabe was adopted, but that doesn't mean anything to them; however, it was interesting how they both reacted to hearing how he wasn't Jewish because he wasn't Malka's "actual" son. But Gabe is just brilliant, and I adored him! I loved seeing how Hannah was discovering her sexuality through meeting and being attracted to Ari, who is a lesbian. Their romance was the sweetest and so beautiful. And Gabe was gay, and a non-binary character who I was just completely mad about! I just loved all of them, honestly. They are the light and the joy in what is otherwise a sad and confusing and difficult time for them, but together they just support and love each other, and just get things done. I adored where the story went, and the big reveal, and just all layers and seeing how they all fit! I would have preferred for more time to have been spent on what happened after the reveal, but that's just because I loved it so much, rather than because there was anything wrong with pacing. I just adored this whole story!

And I am so desperate for a sequel! With the background of Jewish mysticism, mythology and folklore, I feel like there's definitely potential for more. But more specifically, I feel like there could be a sequel from Gabe's point of view, with him learning more about Judaism and the possibility of him converting, but also about him figuring out how to fix what is broke, and the possibilities around what that could mean for Gabe personally... I hope that's vague enough to give nothing away, but obvious enough for those who have read it. Honestly, I just want more; I want more of these characters, and this world, and Podos' wonderful storytelling. I will be picking up every other book Podos has written, because I need more. Honestly, From Dust, A Flame has stuck with me since I read it, and it's going to be a book I'm going to re-read over and over, and try to push in everyone's hands. I am just so crazy about this book, and I honestly can't recommend it enough.

Thank you to Harper360YA for the proof.

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