Book Bag: ‘The Lost Women of Azalea Court’ by Ellen Meeropol; “Victorious’ by Yishai Sarid

Staff Writer
Published: 9/8/2022 4:27:27 PM
Modified: 9/8/2022 4:23:41 PM

The Lost Women of Azalea Court

By Elle Meeropol; Red Hen Press

 

Northampton author Ellen Meeropol used her first four novels to explore how a range of social and political issues, from the rise of the U.S. security state in the aftermath of 9/11 to the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, played out in the lives of different people.

In her newest book, “The Lost Women of Azalea Court,” Meeropol has drawn on a chapter of local history — the former Northampton State Hospital — as background for a mystery that examines the secrets, lies and painful stories at the heart of a small group of families. The novel, set in Northampton, is also an examination of how society treats the mentally ill and the unpredictable ways in which people can come together.

Azalea Court is the fictional name of six bungalows, previously a part of housing for staff from the psychiatric hospital that once stood nearby. Those six cottages, set close together amid trees and gardens, are now occupied by six families, most of whom don’t have much interaction with each other, though some have lived there for years.

That changes when one elderly resident, Iris Blum, suddenly goes missing. At first it’s suspected that Iris is a victim of creeping dementia: When the police are called in, some of the neighbors recall that of late she had seemed distracted, even somewhat fearful, or “not herself,” as one person puts it.

Her husband, Asher, now 94, was the last head psychiatrist at the state hospital; he tells the cops he had begun treating Iris himself a few weeks earlier for a sudden onset of dementia. The lead detective, Sandra McPhee, seems surprised Asher wouldn’t have brought his wife to another physician but tells him she and her fellow officers will do all they can to find Iris.

But the search for her becomes a catalyst for the resentments, suspicions, pain and troubled histories of the people of Azalea Court — especially the women — to begin surfacing. Meeropol tells the story from the viewpoint of multiple characters, using short chapters that introduce new angles and perspectives to the story, which serve in turn to move it in unexpected directions.

There’s Evelyn, for example, who lives next door to the Blums and despises Asher. She once worked at the state hospital as a nurse but was traumatized by an assault she experienced there, one she’s long been convinced Asher covered up in his role as lead psychiatrist. Now she suspects Asher is behind his wife’s disappearance.

Another woman, with the Tolkien-inspired name of Gandalf, is scared to talk to the police and has always kept a certain distance from her neighbors; she has emotional and psychological scars from a brutal encounter some years earlier with the Department of Homeland Security. (Gandalf is in fact a character from one of Meeropol’s earlier novels, “On Hurricane Island.”)

Meeropol also introduces Lexi, Asher and Iris’ daughter, who lives elsewhere in Northampton and feels guilty about not spending more time with her mother; Gloria, a homeless woman who often parks her car near Azalea Court; and Aggie, who along with her husband has long felt ostracized in the neighborhood, perhaps because of her political beliefs.

These “lost women,” including Detective McPhee, will find themselves drawing closer despite their differences as the search for Iris continues, revealing the personal stories they’ve kept hidden. Asher, meanwhile, looks back on the trauma he suffered during the Holocaust — he was the lone survivor of his family — and wonders if that experience led him to make a series of mistakes as an older man.

Meeropol offers some backdrop on the horrors of institutionalized care at Northampton State Hospital — she used source material on the hospital for her novel — and how some women may have been locked up there simply because they were considered “difficult.”

Indeed, the lost women in the novel include those who lived out their lives in the locked wards — and then were buried in the hospital graveyard. That legacy casts its own shadow over the events at Azalea Court, Meeropol writes: “We were beginning to suspect that when you scratch the surface of a place with so much history and such deep power, unexplained and possibly uncanny things can slip up through the cracks.”

Ellen Meerepol is taking part in a number of public events in September connected to the publication of “The Lost Women of Azalea Court,” including a tour around the old state hospital grounds. More details are available at ellenmeeropol.com/.

Victorious

By Yishai Sarid, translated by Yardenne Greenspan;

Restless Books

Israeli author Yishai Sarid gained considerable attention a few years ago with his novel “The Memory Monster,” which took a hard look at the culture of Holocaust remembrance in Israel. The New York Times called it “a brilliant short novel that serves as a brave, sharp-toothed brief against letting the past devour the present.”

Sarid’s new novel, “Victorious,” translated by Yardenne Greenspan (who also translated “The Memory Monster”), tackles another controversial subject: how the Israeli military hardens the men and women in its ranks to make them efficient killers, and the toll that takes on people’s psyches.

Like “The Memory Monster,” the new novel is published by Restless Books, the Amherst-New York press founded by the writer Ilan Stavans, who teaches at Amherst College.

“Victorious” is narrated by Abigail, a military psychologist in the Israeli army who has spent her career serving seemingly disparate roles: helping soldiers deal with the trauma of war while also showing commanders how they can turn those same troops into efficient, resilient killers.

As the novel opens, Abigail, a single mother, is facing a new reckoning. Her gentle son, Shauli, is now eligible for the military draft and has decided to join an elite paratrooper unit, where the training will be intense and the danger from combat high. The boy’s father is a leading commander in the Israeli army; Abigail has long insisted he never reveal his connection to Shauli.

Abigail believes in her work — the ultimate goal of having well-adjusted soldiers is “to defeat the enemy,” she says — even though her aging father, also a psychologist, has long been critical of her. “You’ve translated capitalism into military terms,” he says. “You don’t treat people. You are a servant of power.”

Her father also notices that Abigail has developed warts and lesions on her fingers — a sure sign, he says, that her life is out of balance and that’s she’s troubled by the contradictions of her work.

Abigail doesn’t deny those contradictions. In one scene, she oversees a mock but brutally realistic interrogation of a young female helicopter pilot as part of her training, and the session ends with the woman urinating on herself. Abigail comforts her afterward; she’s determined that female recruits be as tough as the male ones, but she also says of her job, “You break them down and then try to fix them … Like some psychopathic toy collector.”

As the army readies for an unspecified “major operation,” Abigail’s loneliness, her concerns about her son, and some creeping doubts about her work begin to blur the line between her personal life and her professional one. Ordered to assess the state of mind of a sniper unit that has killed unidentified civilians, presumably Palestinians, she begins an affair with the unit’s young commander — who also holds her finger on the trigger of his rifle as he shoots a man.

Sarid himself served in the Israeli army for several years, including as an intelligence officer, and he draws on that and a crisp, unadorned writing style to examine the difficult questions of patriotism, national identity, and ongoing fighting in the Middle East.

“Israel recruits young people, almost children, 18 years old, and some of them have to go to combat units and kill,” the author said in an interview last year. “They grow up like my children ... They are not any different from others. You have to train them to kill. This is both fascinating and tragic.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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