The Singing Fire by Lilian NattelThe Singing Fire by Lilian Nattel

The Singing Fire

byLilian Nattel

Paperback | November 30, 2004

Pricing and Purchase Info

$18.90 online 
$21.00 list price save 10%
Earn 95 plum® points

Prices and offers may vary in store


Ships within 1-2 weeks

Ships free on orders over $25

Not available in stores


From the acclaimed author of The River Midnight comes the story two emigrant women who change each other’s lives and, despite following separate paths, are united in their love of a child.

In 1875, Nehama arrives at St. Katharine’s Dock, having fled the expectations of her family in Poland. Planning to create a new life for herself and then send for her family to join her, she isn’t prepared for the reality of London’s East End, where only a block can separate the lively street markets from the dens of iniquity. Her dreams of independence falter when she is tricked into becoming a prostitute by a man called the Squire, who poses as a member of the Newcomers’ Assistance Committee. Brutalized and trapped, Nehama soon begins to lose hope, but when she becomes pregnant she realizes she must get away to save her child. With only the whispers of her late grandmother to guide her, she escapes and is taken in by a kind couple, who help her to re-create herself in the respectable immigrant community of the East End. There, despite a miscarriage, she begins to find a niche for herself as a seamstress and marries a tailor named Nathan. Sadly, however, she is unable to escape the pain of losing her baby and is haunted by the conviction that her sordid life in Dorset Street is to blame for her childlessness.

Emilia arrives in London in 1886, having fled from a life in Minsk that would have been considered privileged if it weren’t for her domineering and unpredictable father. Her dreams of living in an Italian villa with the mother she left behind have not prepared her for the rough life that faces Jewish immigrants in London. She is also pregnant, and it’s only Nehama’s intervention that saves her from the clutches of the Squire. But the struggles of life in the working-class Jewish neighborhood are not what she imagined for herself, and, leaving her baby with Nehama, she escapes to the wealthier streets of the city’s West End. There, she re-creates herself as a gentile and marries into a wealthy family, but cannot escape the memory of everything she has left behind.

Years pass as Nehama and Emilia follow their separate paths, each trying to ensure herself a successful future — Nehama dreams of opening a store of her own, Emilia plans to have another child. Yet each realizes that it is impossible to do so without coming to terms with the past. This is asking a lot of two women who have seen such sorrow of their own, and who also remember that of their mothers and grandmothers. But as they discover, the tests of the past, when seen from the present, are also proof of strength and faith. It is this reserve that both women draw on to make peace with their new lives, and in doing so, they arrive in places that hold some common ground.

With vivid prose and rich detail, Lilian Nattel weaves the lives of these two women not only together but into the tapestry of nineteenth-century London. Taking us into the streets and alleys of the East End, Nattel honours the spirit of the Jewish immigrant community and most of all the women who lived at its heart.
Growing up in Montreal, Lilian Nattel soaked up the stories and customs of her Jewish culture and learned Yiddish from her parents: “My parents spoke Yiddish at home when they didn't want us kids to understand, so of course I learned it well.” The language has been useful while doing research for her novels, as she has been able to rea...
Title:The Singing FireFormat:PaperbackDimensions:336 pages, 8 × 5.18 × 0.85 inPublished:November 30, 2004Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676976018

ISBN - 13:9780676976014


Rated 5 out of 5 by from Have to get my own copy now. I've borrowed my friend's copy too many times. I have to own this one. Two lives intertwine in this mid-1800's tale in London. The details are so vibrant I can smell the time and place; it's enchanting. Historically, it is accurate as I teach this time period. That said, this isn't always a relaxing read. Early in the book, there is graphic violence, although during subsequent readings I am impressed by Nattel's control and restraint. Trust the author to take you through these scenes early in the book-- the story is worth your investment.
Date published: 2007-10-27

Read from the Book

PrologueLonging1886They met in a place of smoky bricks and smoky fogs and a million pigeons nesting by a million chimneys. Sea winds blew the fog from the docks to the depot, from the railroad tracks to the high road, from there to the lane, working into all the hidden alleys as narrow as needles. In the mud of the alley, cobblestones separated so donkeys and barrows could enter, brick walls leaned back to make room for stalls, and up high hung clothes that trembled in the air. Everything born and everything made found its way over the river to London. And here they met, the two mothers, the one we remember and the one we forget. The river brought them, the docks received them, the streets took them in.It was in Whitechapel with the wind sweeping up the high road past the hospital and the convent and the bell foundry tolling bells. Carts and carriages jammed the wide road, steam came from cookshops and drizzle from the heavens. In the wind, street matrons held on to their hats, for every woman wore one, even if it was just a battered sailor hat, and she used her nails to fight instead of hatpins. It was time to retrieve the Sunday boots from the pawnshop, for wage packets were in hand, and shopkeepers stood in doorways shouting their wares above the sound of wheels and wind and the rattle of trains, their windows bright in the gray-green rain. The wind raged past new warehouses six stories high, holding all the goods of the Empire for the West End, it swept past the Jerusalem Music Palace with its twenty-seven thousand crystals in the gaslit chandelier, past the gin palace of dazzling color, past the club, the assembly room, the shooting gallery, past all the old houses, built after the Great Fire, now crumbling from stone and brick into the ash of the street. The wind saw the nuns and the Salvation Army Band, with its brass instruments and its bold uniforms, and everywhere the placards and posters in Yiddish: “Milk fresh from the cow!” “Cheapest and best funerals!” “New melodrama starring the Great Eagle, Jacob Adler!”This was the high road of the ghetto, the one square mile where Yiddish was spoken, the irritating pimple on the backside of London, the subject of parliamentary debate, the hundred thousand newcomers among the millions, ready to take fog as their mother’s milk here in the East End, where all the noisy, dirty, and stinking industries were exiled from the city.The Jewish streets stretched up from Whitechapel Road, pushing into the twisting alleys, pushing back the pimps and the prostitutes and the thieves whose stronghold was just above in Dorset Street. Smack in the middle was the Jews’ Free School, to the right was the steam bath, to the left the rag market. The dairyman from Ilford was carting his milk cans full of vodka to sell. If you liked to gamble, down below was Shmolnik’s coffee house, and if you were hungry, you could have the best fish and chips, invented up here by a Dutch Jew in the Lane.It was Saturday night in the Lane, meaning Petticoat Lane and all its contiguous streets. Among the tailors, the corset sellers, the letter writers, the cigar and boot makers, naphtha lamps flared in the darkness. People spoke Yiddish, they spoke English, they spoke in the language of the street, where their lives took place. “Hi! Hi! See the strong man! See the singing dwarf! See the contortionist! Only a penny!” In the dusk there were crowds of buyers and sellers, and between the stalls, one man juggled fire and another swallowed it. The fortune-teller’s bird picked out cards with its beak and every card told a fortune. Signs advertised marvels. Oilcloth guaranteed to last twenty years. Magic firelight that a little child could use. Medicine sure to cure the ills of all five million cells in the human body. Here you could buy used goods of every kind except for one thing. Even in the rain there was a queue for it, people eating supper and talking and waiting. And what did they want that they couldn’t get secondhand? A ticket to the Yiddish theater of course.No one in the world loved theater more than Londoners, and among them none more than the Jews. When they came to the free land, the old made a match with the new, and a butcher from home who changed his name to Smith built the Yiddish theater. And what a theater! It had a parterre and a balcony, curtains with pulleys, chandeliers, trapdoors in the stage for every sort of magical effect discussed by the people waiting in the rain to buy balcony tickets. The great Jacob Adler was playing the lead tonight, and even the beigel seller, whose husband gambled her meager earnings, had found the pennies for tickets to the theater.There were other important people waiting in the queue, a boot-maker who wrote poems, a presser who wrote bad plays, a tailor who told bad jokes, and his wife, who was pregnant and dreaming of the baby. All around them was tobacco smoke and the talk of the street, of work and no work, the horse that won, the husband that ran away, the children’s boots given out by the school. Someone spat and someone hissed while ticket holders for the good seats went inside, among them an old man and his grandson, a journalist who had no idea that his future wife was on her way from Minsk. For in the Court of Heaven, there is a golden throne and a golden desk where God puts strange matters into a golden book. And so it was written: the young woman from Minsk and the tailor’s wife. Only King Solomon the Wise could judge between them.It was all very well for the Holy One above to make such plans in heaven. But earth is for people, and the mother of a people has to go with them. She can’t be left behind with nothing but her shroud crumbling into dust. And so she rose from the graveyard -- maybe it was in Minsk or Pinsk or Plotsk -- and came with the boats to Irongate Stairs. And though her grandchildren would speak a different mother tongue and have customs unknowable to her, they would also rise from the graveyard for the sake of their children, so that they would not be abandoned in their exile. The human heart, knowing it will die alone, needs to belong to others so it can live; those others who are somehow like us -- and in being like us raise us out of the uncountable billions that rise and fall, rise and fall, unremarkable as ants, as cells, as the hands clapping when the curtain rises, torchlights burning at the foot of the stage.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. How is this novel a story about what it means to be a mother? Think not only about Nehama and Emilia, but their own mothers, and Gittel’s dreams of what her real mother would be like. And what is the role of the ghostly grandmothers who follow Nehama and Emilia?2. From the first lines of this book, we experience the sights and sounds and smells of the Whitechapel district — hearing the merchants’ cries along Frying Pan Alley, seeing the fate that awaits young women on Dorset Street. Discuss the importance of Nattel’s richly detailed scene-setting to your experience reading this novel.3. Why does Emilia pose as a gentile — is it just to get a job? Do you agree that Jacob wouldn’t have fallen in love with her if she had been truthful about her heritage?4. Both Nehama and Emilia fled to London to escape their home lives — Emilia from a brutal father and a broken mother, Nehama from her dominating sisters and an unappealing arranged marriage. Discuss how being able to leave things behind in order to move forward affects them both.5. Discuss the role of the Yiddish theatre in the lives of Nattel’s characters and their Jewish community. Why is the theatre so important to the East Enders? Why does Jacob begin writing plays about Jewish experiences? Consider also why Nattel has broken this novel into three acts.6. What is the importance of secrets in this novel? Why do Emilia and Nehama keep their pasts hidden from their husbands?7. How does Nehama survive her life as a prostitute at the Horn and Plenty? What does Sally represent to her?8. At the end of The Singing Fire, Emilia and Nehama watch the Guy Fawkes celebrations from opposite sides of the same fence, as both open up to their husbands about their past lives. And against our expectations, they never do meet again. Why do you think Nattel ended the book in this way?9. Nattel shows us the communities of both the prosperous West End, where the desire to assimilate causes Jacob’s family and friends to suppress their religious and cultural lives, and the working-class East End, where the Jewish neighbourhood thrives in its rejection of English society. Discuss Nattel’s portrayal of Jewish and immigrant life in turn-of-the-century London, and the class differences explored in the novel.10. Nehama and Emilia often think back on family stories. Nehama’s grandmother stepped in to nurse the baby daughter of her new husband, and her “breasts ran to milk as thick as cream.” Emilia’s mother “charmed the Russian officers” by playing the piano, and saved her family from certain death. What is the importance of family mythology in this story? How do Nehama and Emilia view their female forebears? What is the role of your own family’s history and mythology?

Editorial Reviews

“By turns earthy and lyrical, The Singing Fire authoritatively conjures up the fog- and smoke-filled breath of London, and at the same time it’s steeped in an atmosphere of mystery, reaching for soaring, transcendental truths. Nattel’s greatest strength. . .is as an old-fashioned storyteller. . . I must confess, I wept unabashedly more than once as I raced through this fine novel.” —The Globe and Mail“Think Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Dickens and Gabriel García Márquez and you will have some idea of the scope of literary influences behind Lilian Nattel’s new novel.”—Quill & Quire"Marvelous...vibrant....Her prose is just as finely balanced, rich in humor that’s never simply for laughs ... and filled with passages of heartbreaking beauty that acknowledge the permanent scars left by tragedy but affirm the healing powers of love and self-knowledge. Beautifully-written, strongly imagined and deeply felt."—Kirkus Reviews“The Singing Fire is sure to be a big hit. Nattel has so many strengths as a writer that it’s tempting just to list them: a historian’s eye for detail and language, a storyteller’s mastery of rhythm and suspense, a modern woman’s sympathetic understanding for those who’ve preceded her.”—Toronto Star“…At times heartbreaking without being tragic, and often heart filling without being sentimental. Nattel’s novel is a celebration of the lives of women and the generations of mothers who support each other through family and friendship. The Singing Fire ushers in the new year with a resounding message of love and hope.”—The Edmonton Journal“Lilian Nattel writes vivid prose. Her description of the cold, mucky streets of London, dimly lit by gaslight, where people throw pots of slop and other unmentionable refuse on to the rooftops and into the streets, is captivating in its realism.”—The Vancouver Sun“Once again, Nattel’s descriptive powers shine, and her evocation of place is Dickensian.”—National Post“…here’s betting that most readers will end up loving headstrong, passionate Nehama almost as a sister, and recognizing this magical book as one of the best of the new year.”—The Gazette (Montreal)Praise for The River Midnight:“Nattel has the gift not only of telling the truth about women’s lives but the rarer gift of creating a world the reader can live inside. . . . Radiant and magical.”—Toronto Star“Richly imagined, sensuous in its details, spiced with energetic dialogue, The River Midnight offers pleasures on every page.”—The Globe and Mail“Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez’s Macondo, Nattel’s imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance [and] the brilliantly patterned minutiae of daily life.”—TIME