Speed of Light

Speed of Light

4.2 7
by Elizabeth Rosner
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

Every family has a story. Every story, eventually, must be told.

For most of their lives, Julian Perel and his sister, Paula, lived in a house cast in silence, witnesses to a father struggling with a devastating secret too painful to share. Though their father took his demons to the grave, his past refuses to rest.

As adults, brother and sister

Overview

Every family has a story. Every story, eventually, must be told.

For most of their lives, Julian Perel and his sister, Paula, lived in a house cast in silence, witnesses to a father struggling with a devastating secret too painful to share. Though their father took his demons to the grave, his past refuses to rest.

As adults, brother and sister struggle to find their voices. A scientist governed by numbers and logic, Julian now lives an ordered life of routine and seclusion. My father gave up his language and his homeland. But he carried his sadness with him, under his skin. It was mine now. In contrast, Paula has entered the world as eagerly as Julian retracts from it. An aspiring opera singer, she is always moving, buoyant with sound. Singing was the only gift I could offer to my father. I filled the house with music. I tried to give him joy. . . .

Yet both their lives begin to change on a Wednesday, miercoles, the day that sounds like miracles. Before embarking on a European opera tour, Paula asks her housekeeper, Sola, to stay at her place—and to look after Julian in the apartment above. Yet Sola, too, has a story. I want to clean myself like the window of a house, make myself clear for things to pass through. Flat and quiet.

As Paula uncovers pieces of her father's early life in Budapest and the horrifying truth of his past, Julian bears witness to Sola's story—revelations that help all three learn how to both surrender and revere the shadows that have followed them for so long.

The Speed of Light is a powerful debut about three unforgettable souls who overcome the tragedies of the past to reconnect with one another and the world around them. In an extraordinary accomplishment, Elizabeth Rosner has created a novel of love and redemption that proves the pain of the untold story is far greater than even the most difficult truth.


Editorial Reviews

bn.com
Acclaimed poet Elizabeth Rosner turns her hand to fiction in this compelling debut novel of remembrance, in which the sorrows of the past inspire the story of the present.
Richard Ford
The Speed of Light is an elegant, meticulous, and quite subtle novel about lives lived at a remove from, but forever connected to, tragedy--the camps. Ms. Rosner's imaginative aim, of course, is to show us great human importance where we might've thought it didn't reside, and to change us with this knowledge. She certainly succeeds.
Chitra Ranertee Divakaruni
A resonating novel about silence and sharing, about the mystery and pain of the past and how it must be reclaimed. Beautifully written, in images that sing in our ears long after we've put the book down.
Nicholas Delbanco
Rilke memorably defined art as exactness, a hatred of the vague, and by that definition The Speed of Light is poetry sustained. The precision of the language here, the structural arrangements and the deft evocation of character in history all herald a genuine talent--not so much emerging as achieved. Ms. Rosner's debut novel turns sorrow into song.
Tova Mirvis
With its symphony of voices, The Speed of Light tells a haunting story of loss and redemption. It is beautifully written and utterly affecting.
Beverly Donofrio
Elizabeth Rosner touches a chord deep down where our fears are buried, then makes that chord vibrate and hum until magic happens and it sings. I loved this book. It entered my dreams.
Joseph Berger
Elizabeth Rosner has written a lyrical and absorbing novel whose power is enriched by its understatement. This uncommon story not only probes how children wrestle with the silence handed down to them by a silent father cursed with inexhaustible sorrow, but it also tells us of the healing magic of love and does so through a marvelous and unusual character--a Latino housekeeper--who will find an enduring spot in readers' hearts.
Publishers Weekly
The adult children of a holocaust survivor learn about grief, forgiveness and the power of bearing witness from a Latina housekeeper who has also been victimized by government-sponsored genocide in a dark, subtle novel by poet Rosner. Julian and Paula Perel grew up with a somber, uncommunicative father still shell-shocked by his years in Auschwitz. Now with both parents dead, the siblings share a house in Berkeley, Calif. Julian, a recluse, lives an obsessive routine with 11 TVs in various states of disrepair to fend off the sadness that he calls his father's legacy. When Paula, an opera singer as adventurous as her brother is shy, heads to Europe to audition for opera houses and become a star, she asks her housekeeper, Sola Ordinaio, to care for her apartment and to keep an eye on Julian, whose elaborate rituals govern his life. A wary friendship blossoms between Sola and Julian, and deepens when Sola confesses that she is the only surviving witness of the Mexican government's massacre of her small village. Meanwhile, in Budapest, Paula traces the Perel family's roots and finds someone who tells her a horrible secret about Jacob Perel's time in Auschwitz. Paula feels her confidence faltering and cancels her last auditions to return to Berkeley. There, she finds Julian, with Sola's help, emerging from the emotional paralysis of his life and decides that she will not allow the tragedies of the past to silence him. The emotional impact of Rosner's material is considerable, but her schematic method of alternating the three voices of her protagonists makes the symmetries between their stories a little too neat. Still, the catharsis is moving, and the final affirmation of life, love and art toerase tragedy is uplifting. Agent, Joelle Delbourgo. 8-city author tour. (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
It's hard not to like this lyrical, gently paced debut that confronts the terrible legacy carried by children of trauma and tragedy. Paula Perel and her older brother Julian bear the anguish of their father's Holocaust memories in vastly different ways: Paula sublimates her personality by becoming a professional singer of lieder (although forbidden by her father to sing in German), while Julian, a grad student in physics, retreats into the antisocial and deafening silence of his "eleven" TV sets. Now orphaned and living on their own on two floors of a Berkeley apartment, Paula must leave on a Grand Tour to make a name for herself in Europe; she invites her cleaning lady, Sola Ordonio, to stay and keep an eye on her paranoid, solitary brother, who lives upstairs. Sola, a 30ish political refugee from an unnamed South American country where, years before, she witnessed the massacre of her family, brings Julian his lunch and picks up plates. Gradually, the sympathy between the two emotionally diffident characters grows. Rosner takes excruciating pains to weave the threads of her narrative in alternating points of view, and the slow-moving action back in forth in time is examined in many tireless facets. Rosner has an expert command of her material (she herself is the child of Holocaust survivors), from the Hungarian Jewish father's past as a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz and Sola's terrifying memories of witness to the nuances of opera singing. And everywhere poet Rosner exhibits her care in the use of language, such as the comparison of a piano, its cover closed and keys hidden, to a woman "ashamed to show her teeth when she smiles." A thoughtful, earnest first novel: it doesn't takeany risks but sticks faithfully to its affecting mark.
From the Publisher
"The Speed of Light is an elegant, meticulous, and quite subtle novel about lives lived at a remove from, but forever connected to, tragedy—the camps. Ms. Rosner's imaginative aim, of course, is to show us great human importance where we might've thought it didn't reside, and to change us with this knowledge. She certainly succeeds."
—RICHARD FORD

"A resonating novel about silence and sharing, about the mystery and pain of the past and how it must be reclaimed. Beautifully written, in images that sing in our ears long after we've put the book down."
—CHITRA RANERTEE DIVAKARUNI
Author of The Mistress of Spices and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives

"Rilke memorably defined art as exactness, a hatred of the vague, and by that definition The Speed of Light is poetry sustained. The precision of the language here, the structural arrangements and the deft evocation of character in history all herald a genuine talent—not so much emerging as achieved. Ms. Rosner's debut novel turns sorrow into song."
—NICHOLAS DELBANCO
Author of What Remains

"With its symphony of voices, The Speed of Light tells a haunting story of loss and redemption. It is beautifully written and utterly affecting."
—TOVA MIRVIS
Author of The Ladies Auxiliary

"Elizabeth Rosner touches a chord deep down where our fears are buried, then makes that chord vibrate and hum until magic happens and it sings. I loved this book. It entered my dreams."
—BEVERLY DONOFRIO
Author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking For Mary

"Elizabeth Rosner has written a lyrical and absorbing novel whose power is enriched by its understatement. This uncommon story not only probes how children wrestle with the silence handed down to them by a silent father cursed with inexhaustible sorrow, but it also tells us of the healing magic of love and does so through a marvelous and unusual character—a Latino housekeeper—who will find an enduring spot in readers' hearts."
—JOSEPH BERGER
Author of Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307417411
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/18/2007
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
411,828
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

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

My younger and only sister, Paula, had gone away, leaving the apartment directly below mine to test the reach of her voice. I stayed behind, with my eleven televisions, waiting for her to come back.

I was teaching myself not to feel.

In the room with the televisions, there were no voices: I had silenced them all. Instead I heard: a clock that ticked like a snapping twig; the hum and push of cars passing on the street; a neighbor’s dog barking at the arrival of mail; the refrigerator purring; my own breath, in and out. All the rhythms, in and out. And inside my head: a melody from before, when my sister trained her voice to soar, when I listened to the notes float and resonate. I believed sometimes that I could see them.

Paula was auditioning, sending her hopeful music into the arms of Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna—places I had never seen and never expected to. I lived in the safe embrace of my apartment, whose windows overlooked a park and a playground and a street.

I had collected broken televisions and fixed them, one by one, sometimes guessing at the way to put things back together. I had no manuals to follow, no map. I made good guesses, I had a feel for those things, a kind of blind instinct. In the end, they all worked, although the colors were never exactly right. Some were always a little too green, others a little too violet. It didn’t matter. The scratchy growl of their voices didn’t matter either, because I often kept them very quiet. I spent most of my time watching the images, letting them tell me stories. I let themdistract me from every terrible truth until nothing touched me at all.

It was never a decision, never something I asked for. It simply belonged to me, like a second skin. No. Like my only skin. There was no choice, no letting go. And if there had been the chance to refuse?

If I’d been asked?

I would still say yes.

It 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, as if someone else had owned them first. There would be dogs barking, murderous voices in the distance, smoke filling the dark air.

His actual stories I never heard. My father held all the shards of glass inside, where the edges cut him to pieces. When he looked at me, it was not so much into my eyes as through them, as if I were a clear window to the past. I looked back at him, I listened to the wordless dark. What else could I do? I believed this was what I was here for, to be the receiver of that gaze, to swallow it completely. The broken glass? I swallowed that too.

Here is what I knew how to do: how to get away. How to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing. My voice was a ticket of escape, one way to anywhere but where I was. I tried to take my brother, Julian, with me, to help him escape too, but it was more weight than I could carry. Only one of us could make it out alive. I didn’t choose myself, not exactly, but the truth was, I had a ticket and he didn’t. I had to use it or die.

“I’m going away for a while,” Paula had announced the previous Monday over lunch. For once she didn’t try to prepare me for a shock. “I’m taking myself on a Grand Tour,” she explained, her arms flourishing, “hoping some opera company will give me a chance. According to my agent, I’m going to become quite famous.” She sighed a little, eager or worried, I couldn’t be sure.

“When?” I asked.

She came over to my chair and wrapped her slender arms around herself wishing, I knew, that she could hug me with them but knowing I couldn’t bear it.

“I’ll miss you too,” she whispered, not looking at me. Then, in another voice she added, “I leave this Wednesday, early in the morning.” She struck a dramatic pose, one arm up and one to the side, her head thrown back to expose her ivory neck. “I’ll write you postcards,” she said.

I would place them beneath my pillow and memorize them in my sleep. I would dream in languages I’d never heard.

At the door of my apartment, leaving, Paula stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “What’s it like, Julian? What’s it like to live inside your body?” She leaned against the door frame, frowning a little, waiting for me to answer.

I aimed my gaze above her head, at the place where the wall met the ceiling. In two days she would be gone. “It’s very quiet,” I said.

“Quiet,” she repeated softly. From the corner of my eye I could see her frown grow deeper. She didn’t know what I was talking about.

“What’s inside yours?” I asked her.

She shrugged and said, “Music.”

I nodded. “Think of plants,” I said. “They’re breathing and growing, eating and drinking. We just can’t hear them.”

Paula looked at me, and I tried to look back, tried to stay right there with her. She was far enough away that I couldn’t see the color of her eyes.

“No wonder you have to be so careful,” she said. “They’d have you for breakfast out there.”

“Who?” I asked, although I knew who.

“All of them,” Paula said, shaking her head. “Every goddamn one.”

Every goddamn one, I silently repeated. Then out loud I said, “I wonder what I’d taste like,” and Paula flashed that wide-open smile of hers.

“Like sweet potatoes,” she said.

“In bocca al lupo,” I said to Julian before I left. Mouth of the wolf. It was backstage code from the Italians, their way of saying break a leg. I blew a kiss into the air, not aiming at his face but somewhere high, over his head, where he wouldn’t be afraid of it.

“Forget the wolf,” he said back to me the way he was supposed to, the signal for courage and faith. But Julian needed it more than I did. He must have thought I was always leaving him, as if it were easy for me. I opened doors and slammed them behind me, never letting myself check if anything had cracked from the blow.

On the morning of Paula’s flight to Europe, I stood by the window in the early light and watched a white taxicab pull up in front of our building. Paula stood beside the trunk while the driver loaded her luggage, and a breeze lifted the ends of her dark green scarf as she turned to look up at my window. Her lips were painted the color of raspberries. She waved and smiled, tucking the scarf into the collar of her coat. I put my hand flat against the smooth glass and held it there. Paula disappeared behind the opaque windows of the taxi, and then the taxi disappeared too. Below me, the ginkgo tree was full of green, fluttering its fan-shaped leaves.

I adjusted all the sets, fine-tuning their brightness and vertical hold, wiping the electric dust from their screens. I turned up the volume for a while, filling my room with too many voices, all of them and none of them talking to me. Inside, where I lived, it was still very quiet.

My earliest memory is the sound of crying—my father waking up from a nightmare. Or was it my brother? A nameless sobbing in the dark. Julian told me I cooed like a bird before I learned to speak; I made my mouth into an O and I began, with no reason, to sing.

When I was still very young, before my mother died, we kept a pair of canaries in a cage by the kitchen window; at night, the cage was covered with a towel. Such a simple script: In the daylight, they sang, and at night, they slept. I used to wonder if they knew that outside the window lay a world they could never reach.

At exactly one o’clock on that Wednesday of Paula’s departure, a cola-skinned woman came to my door with a lunch tray. I had been warned by my sister to expect her; Paula knew better than to surprise me twice in one week. Still, though I’d already unlatched the door for her, I felt unprepared for her arrival, needing to back away and sit again in my leather chair. I was holding my breath, waiting for her to go away.

Standing in the doorway, before she entered the apartment, she took a slow look around. I found out later that she was taking photographs in her mind of where everything belonged, even me in my chair, even the way the cords of the televisions snaked across the floor. She was taking care of Paula’s apartment for the month, and she was bringing me a sandwich for lunch. Paula had shown her just how much mustard to spread, just how to place the pieces of cut bread on the plate, how to fold the napkin. Without the design on the plate I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t even take a bite.

He could drown in a glass of water, the woman thought.

It was what she told me much later, that this was her first thought when she saw me. But what she said out loud was, “My name is Sola.”

I guessed her to be close to Paula’s age, maybe thirty, but I wasn’t about to study her face, even from safely across the room. Instead, I imagined myself as she must have seen me: pale and elongated, my brown hair unevenly trimmed, my disheveled clothing, my sleeves too short, exposing my bony wrists. On Paula, the related features were so photogenic: liquid blue eyes and a full-smiling mouth, a heart-shaped face, brown hair that fell in a sweet disorder of waves. In mirrors I had discovered that my own version was blurrier, less coherent, stretched too far. Behind my glasses, I felt Sola watch me.

She offered the tray to me exactly the way Paula must have shown her. She didn’t even try to look me in the eye when she introduced herself, and I was grateful. I thought Paula must have told her that too.

Did I need to say that my name was Julian? I decided it wasn’t necessary, so I said nothing and began to eat my sandwich. Avocado and Swiss. Sola walked toward the kitchen to collect Paula’s dishes from the week before. As always, I’d washed and dried and stacked them beside the sink, with the silverware wrapped in a paper towel on top of the pile. I heard Sola’s footsteps pause, begin again, and then stop.

“Excuse me,” she said, forcing me to turn around in my seat. I saw her eyebrows lifting on her forehead, her mouth stretched into an almost-smile. She was holding the pile of dishes out in front of her, her brown hands dark against the white ceramic. “You do not have to wash these,” she said. “I can come back later and do them downstairs with my own washing up.”

This was her first mistake, although I knew she meant well. I shook my head, my mouth full of sandwich. She had an accent I couldn’t quite place. I chewed and swallowed, completing what I had begun, and turned back to take a gulp of water. Still turned away from her, I thought about how many words it would take to explain things.

“I like to,” I told her.

I think she said “Oh,” and then she did a surprising thing: She laughed. It was very quiet, but I heard the flutter in her throat. I thought a long time afterwards about that laugh. There was a song buried inside it, or a story. Maybe both.

At first I am at Paula’s apartment once a week to clean, which is easy because even though she seems not to care about how she scatters her clothing and leaves piles of papers around the rooms, in fact there is a kind of order in her mess. Once I learn her system, once I memorize each room, I am able to clean around her things without disturbing them. When I am finished, it is like nothing is changed but looks like everything belongs exactly where it is.

She gives me my own key because most of the time when I come on Friday afternoons she is somewhere else, singing. The first time I see her brother, Julian, he is on the sidewalk in front of the building, staring for maybe half an hour at a tree twice as high as his head. I am cleaning Paula’s living room, and I see him from the window.

Copyright 2001 by Elizabeth Rosner

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Rosner is a graduate of Stanford University and received a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Poetry East, Southern Poetry Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California.


Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Speed of Light 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Rosner's beautiful tale of loneliness and the inevitable connection we have to others and the past is one that deserves attention. Her prose is almost too wonderfully poetic to be called prose. There is not only one story here, there are three; and then, really, there are many more. This is one of the most affecting novels I have read in a while. It has a subtle way of sneaking into your bedtime thoughts and daydreams. It will sit on your desk or coffeetable, softly calling to you like the wind.
Guest More than 1 year ago
For me, reading The Speed of Light was like stepping into a nightmare that is transformed into a meaningful dream. The language of poetry interwoven with scientific facts gently carries the reader forward and backward, all the while in a vehicle that feels very familiar and personal. Liz Rosner's poetry, written long before this novel, holds the same mystique. Perhaps when one has chosen stories so steeped in trauma it is almost mandatory to soften the path to the darkness with the delicacy of poetic words and images. The Speed of Light will live on in the heart of anyone who reads it in much the same way as the inherited stories must live on in the present lives of each character. Cynthia Brody editor, Bittersweet Legacy - Creative Responses to the Holocaust
Guest More than 1 year ago
An incredible first novel. A story told in three voices -- each voice filled with emotion and character. Rosner captures the essence of her characters and the story line is powerful. This book is lyrical.
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
THIS IS A GOOD STORY, THE CHARACTERS KEEP YOU INTERESTED TO THE END.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago