• Review
By – March 18, 2024

What would hap­pen if the Witch of Endor — the ancient bib­li­cal seer who was able to sum­mon the depart­ed prophet, Samuel, for King Saul before going into bat­tle against the Philistines — was reborn in mod­ern times as the daugh­ter of a famed British writer? And what if this new witch’s eccen­tric­i­ties, depres­sion, and sub­stance abuse pro­vid­ed great lit­er­ary fod­der for her mother?

When a writer is born into a fam­i­ly, the fam­i­ly is fin­ished,” the Pol­ish Jew­ish poet Czes­law Milosz was quot­ed as say­ing. Toby Lloyd’s debut nov­el, Fer­vor, attempts to test this assertion.

The fam­i­ly in ques­tion are the Rosen­thals. The moth­er, Han­nah, is a popular/​reviled con­ser­v­a­tive Jew­ish colum­nist who’s made her rep­u­ta­tion writ­ing the sto­ry of her Holo­caust sur­vivor father-in-law. Short­ly after her father-in-law’s death and the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, some­thing snaps in the psy­che of her daugh­ter, Elsie, who was unusu­al­ly close to her grand­fa­ther. Elsie begins ditch­ing school, sneak­ing booze, and writ­ing grotesque sto­ries. Per­haps she’s dab­bling in kab­bal­ah. And, who knows, maybe she’s a real-life witch. (Whether her super­nat­ur­al qual­i­ties are real is left some­what ambigu­ous.) But Han­nah knows a good sto­ry when she sees it. She turns Elsie’s cir­cum­stance into a book called Daugh­ters of Endor, which becomes anoth­er run­away best­seller. Under­stand­ably, the rest of the fam­i­ly is not exact­ly thrilled with the book, and Fer­vor charts the family’s dissolution.

The nov­el is (most­ly) told through the eyes of Tovyah, the school­mate of Elsie’s younger broth­er. (An elder broth­er, Gideon, is in the brood, too, but he’s large­ly an after­thought.) Tovyah arrives at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty short­ly before the sec­ond book is to be pub­lished. He is cold, arro­gant, full of con­fi­dence, and dis­dain­ful of his fel­low stu­dents. He’s extreme­ly eager to delve into great lit­er­a­ture and finds that his peers are large­ly unthink­ing, high­ly politi­cized, eager to drink them­selves sil­ly, and full of scorn for him, too, as the son of the fas­cist” Han­nah Rosenthal.

Even though this nov­el takes place in the late 1990s and ear­ly 2000s, it antic­i­pates some things that feel eeri­ly rel­e­vant now: the Oxford cam­pus is seething with con­tempt for an Ortho­dox Jew­ish boy because of who his moth­er is. The cant that we’ve seen in the media is pro­ject­ed onto Tovyah. And, nat­u­ral­ly, he feels great alienation.

This seems to be the sto­ry of 2023/4 for a lot of Jews — how divorced from and mis­un­der­stood by the rest of the con­tem­po­rary world we feel. Not just on uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es, but on the part of friends we thought we knew.

Fer­vor asks seri­ous ques­tions about what it means to be Jew­ish, reli­gious, British, and a mem­ber of a strange and estranged family.

Max Gross is a nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist who lives in For­est Hills. His 2020 nov­el, The Lost Shtetl, won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award

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