Jon Stephen Fink’s novel A Storm in the Blood imagines the lives of Jews, anti-Tsarists, and revolutionaries in London’s East End.
In 1876, a precocious fourteen year old named Edith Newbold Jones read George Eliot’s proto-Zionist masterpiece, Daniel Deronda, and roundly dismissed the character of Mirah Lapidoth, the young singer who defeats her shiksa rival/foil, the tempestuous Gwendolen, to marry the eponymous Daniel: “I don’t care for [those] pieces of faultlessness, like the good girls of such extravagant saintliness in Sunday School books,” Jones complained in a letter to her governess. “Mirah is of that type—like diluted rose water.”
In Eliot’s defense, her portrait of Mirah, “a delicate, childlike beauty,” and “a pearl… mud has only washed,” is pretty much par for the course: since Ivanhoe’s magnanimous healer, Rebecca (alongside whom Daniel categorizes Mirah), fictional Jewesses have tended to be cast as idealized, self-sacrificing creatures, a tradition upheld today by the dutiful daughters in novels like Bee Season and The History of Love. No wonder, then, that audiences are so delighted by the novelty of onscreen Heeb heroines-with-body-counts like Inglorious Basterds’ Shoshanna Dreyfus, who torches a movie theater, and NCIS’s Ziva David, a Mossad agent who sleeps with a gun in her hand. And no doubt even that adolescent critic—who grew up to be Edith Wharton—would have reacted more enthusiastically to the Mirah-inspired protagonist at the center of Jon Stephen Fink’s intriguing new novel, A Storm in the Blood.
Rivka Bermansfelt is, like Eliot’s heroine, a beautiful teenage singer, estranged from her family, alone and vulnerable in 1910 London. But in contrast to Mirah, who is indeed irritatingly angelic and so, naturally, as Daniel’s mother intuits, “a Jewess who will not accept anyone but a Jew,” Rivka is made of more rebellious stuff. Wanted by the Russian police for attempted murder, she falls for a shady revolutionary who is a fellow Latvian, but a Gentile. Rivka’s lover, Peter Piatkow, or “Peter the Painter,” was the real-life anti-hero and artist whose crimes as a leading member of the Latvian anti-tsarist group Liesma (“flame”) form the engrossing plot of A Storm in the Blood. He confides in her that “in Germany I’m a German. In Marseilles I’m a Frenchman. In Paris, or here, with Jews all around me I’m a Jew… a day doesn’t go by when I don’t worry, Do they know I’m hiding, pretending I’m harmless, the bastards who want to finish me.” In response Rivka thinks: “He’s a Jew who doesn’t know it,” the simple sentiment functioning simultaneously as romantic justification, commentary on the plight of the wandering Jew, and perhaps a meta-wink at Daniel Deronda, whose titular hero is, for most of that novel, quite literally a Jew who doesn’t know it.
A Storm in the Blood opens in Latvia, then part of tsarist Russia, where Rivka and her father, Mordechai (a name he shares, of course, with Mirah’s Kaballist seer brother) fight back against the barbarism of the Russian army, culminating in a violent altercation with a Cossack soldier on horseback. To avoid prison—where her father winds up—or worse, Rivka runs away to London with the help of forged papers. Packed onto the hold of a steamship for three days before disembarking on alien soil, “shoved along in a dirty, sluggish flow of the destitute, all struggling with baggage, bundles, children, thirst, hunger, fatigue,” her experience is identical to that of the many thousands of Jews and other Eastern Europeans who, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, arrived at the docks along the Thames. These usually penniless exiles were quickly absorbed into the East End of London, then a “Little Jerusalem” where Yiddish was the main language, shop signs and adverts were in Hebrew, and the population toiled tirelessly at tailoring, dressmaking, cigarette-rolling, watch-repair, and locksmithing.
Like Daniel Deronda, whose never-before-seen depiction of late-Victorian Jewish London both baffled and fascinated contemporary readers, Fink’s novel vividly evokes the life of the community around Brick Lane, in effect a self-contained village, as novelist and memoirist Emmanuel Litvinoff once put it, “remote in spirit from the adjacent cosmopolitanism of the great city,” and now long since gone. But in 1910, the Whitechapel streets Rivka sees “could have been lifted from a town in Latvia and set down across the North sea… A fried-fish shop, a rag-and-bone yard, a cabinet maker’s, a coffeehouse, and more than one hole-in-the-wall restaurant, each with its own advertising scent hovering around the door. Hot oil, mildew, sawdust, frying onions, crusty toast, smoked herring.”
Rivka takes a job at Shinebloom’s restaurant, where she not only “ferries plates” but entertains the clientele with Yiddish songs in a “Talsi accent” and comes into contact with the members of Liesma, whose activities she’ll be irresistibly drawn into. At first glance they don’t look like gangsters, she thinks, but “people like herself, washed on oily waves to Tilbury and straight from the docks into Shinebloom’s, glad to find their lemon tea and lockshen pudding waiting for them.” But these men, plucked by Fink directly from the history books, had revolutionary fire in their bellies and were prepared to commit audacious crimes to fund the overthrow of their homeland’s tsarist regime, crimes Fink faithfully recreates and that his moll Rivka, after her first few weeks in London, will go along with in the belief that they are politically justified.
She does so not least because, in keeping with her authorially defined role as a conduit of history, she is arrested for her innocent presence at a suffragette protest rally. Lost on her way to an appointment, she finds herself at Parliament Square, which had been transformed into “a pen, a bear pit, with hundreds of women caught inside and as many men ringed round them.” Mistaken for a protestor who hit a police officer’s face with a belt, Rivka is beaten, imprisoned, interrogated and, in a scene that recalls Sylvia Pankhurst’s account of the same violation, force-fed with a tube: “She fought for air, a single breath to keep her body alive, resisting, every gasp plugged by the fattening rubber tube gorged with the mash of bread and milk now being sloshed into the funnel above Rivka’s head.”
Rivka’s degradation at the hands of the police, which connects her spiritually to her imprisoned father’s plight, hastens her conversion to Liesma’s revolutionary cause and she becomes a willing accomplice to their endeavors, though Peter implores her to stay out of trouble, to be a singer rather than a criminal. “I’m not a criminal,” she tells him. “I’m a fighter.” “Straight from the manual,” he thinks.
Liesma’s notorious crimes, the Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street—a bungled jewelry robbery that led to the fatal shootings of three police officers, followed days later by a 7-hour stand-off with the army—shocked England and intensified anti-Semitism in both Britain and Russia, even though Liesma’s head, George Gardstein—who was accidentally killed by a compatriot—was found in a post-mortem to be uncircumcised, i.e. not a Jew. Several surviving Liesma associates, including three women, were arrested and tried, but Peter Piatkow was never apprehended, despite a frenzied international manhunt and a £500 reward. Consequently, he entered history as a glamorously chimerical figure whose identity, and even existence, are still debated by academics. (His status as folk hero endures: Last year, a social housing project in Whitechapel was named Peter House and Painter House in his honor, much to the ire of the right-wing paper The Daily Mail, which condemned him as “a sinister figure from the seething streets of the East End.”)
It is Piatkow’s mythical shape-shifting that allows Jon Stephen Fink to lend a romantic dimension of wish-fulfillment to his tale of Peter and Rivka. Whereas George Eliot’s merging of fantasy and reality has Daniel and Mirah leaving Britain for Palestine in order to fulfill his foretold destiny of restoring “a political existence to my people, making them a nation again,” the conclusion of Fink’s historical faction is considerably less grand but touching nonetheless. Peter and Rivka, the epilogue to A Storm in the Blood imagines, managed to escape France and return to Britain to assume new identities: Edward and Anna, an unassuming Jewish émigré couple who lived a blameless middle-class life in North London for fifty years—an outcome that pays tribute to the throb of longing that had slid through Peter when he first met Rivka, but that his dissident’s soul had questioned, “[b]ecause that throb he felt had a jolt of fear mixed in it. Fear of dreaminess. Rhapsodic hope, love song of the anarchists he hated, who lived outside their bodies in a future always pure and perfect and remote.”