By the Rivers of Babylon

  • Review
By – November 20, 2023

Mary Glick­man, whose pre­vi­ous work was a final­ist for a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, has set her fifth nov­el in her adopt­ed home state of South Car­oli­na. She keeps the read­er close to her main char­ac­ters, the Beck­ers, a young, sec­u­lar Jew­ish cou­ple from Boston. Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1996, Abi­gail and Joe take a trip to Sweet­grass Island, where Abi­gail has inher­it­ed a house. Upon their arrival, they decide to explore beyond their gat­ed com­mu­ni­ty, where most of the neigh­bors are retirees.

Abi­gail is a teacher, and Joe, a children’s book author. They are both music lovers, and soon they ven­ture out to Declan’s, the local pub, to enjoy the bands and meet the locals. Coun­try song lyrics are sprin­kled through­out the nar­ra­tive (and even appear in the book’s title). When Abi­gail enters the pub in shorts and a hal­ter top, she unin­ten­tion­al­ly draws the lust­ful atten­tion of the men — espe­cial­ly the charm­ing wom­an­iz­er Bil­ly Euston, a mas­ter bar­beque chef who lat­er sup­plies Abby with a joint. The nar­ra­tor observes, Her red­neck friend; that’s what Bil­ly Euston was going to be.”

Glick­man makes Billy’s char­ac­ter more com­plex than any oth­er. In fact, the least devel­oped char­ac­ter seems to be Abi­gail, whose main attribute is her beau­ty; she’s con­stant­ly viewed through Billy’s gaze. That being said, her inner tur­moil does sur­face late in the story. 

Bil­ly is sur­prised to learn that Joe and Abi­gail are Jew­ish. They often told peo­ple they didn’t eat pork on reli­gious grounds,” the nar­ra­tor explains, but the truth was, they stayed at a B&B on a farm once in Con­necti­cut and bond­ed with the piglets there … Essen­tial­ly, they were ano­dyne Jews, reflex­ive­ly sup­port­ing Israel and buy­ing a box of mat­zos at Passover … ”

Glickman’s descrip­tion of the land­scape is gor­geous and evoca­tive. We learn about the island’s his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly through the eyes of Black res­i­dents, who descend­ed from for­mer enslaved peo­ple. Black and white res­i­dents coex­ist com­fort­ably on the island, and many are in inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships. The author, orig­i­nal­ly from south of Boston and a Jew by choice, has lived with her fam­i­ly for many years near Charleston. 

Halfway through the book, the plot takes an unex­pect­ed and slight­ly jar­ring turn. The focus shifts from explor­ing deeply trou­bled rela­tion­ships to solv­ing a mur­der. How­ev­er, fol­low­ing Joe’s char­ac­ter as he gains self-con­fi­dence and faces major per­son­al chal­lenges makes the jour­ney worth it.

Nina Schnei­der is a retired Eng­lish & Media Stud­ies pro­fes­sor with exper­tise in cre­ative writ­ing and art history.

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