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Withdrawal: a Novel

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by Michael Hoffmann 

When I was about halfway through this novel, I began to suspect that it wouldn't have an ending. When I finished it, I found that I was right and that was how it should be. Life itself has no ending. For everyone whose story finishes, there are many around them whose stories continue.

This book is a slice of the life of one man and those around him. His life was there before the book began and it continues beyond its end. There is no need of an ending.

Len Fishman, for no reason that is readily apparent, leaves home in his twenties and wanders the world, working as an English teacher when he needs to, for twenty-five years. He returns home, to the perfect Jewish suburb of Nectar, when his brother gets in touch. His father has Alzheimer's, his mother has been forced to put him in a home and no one is coping very well.

Len comes home. The book starts not long after his return and covers the period he stays until, yes, you guessed it.

During this period, he spends a lot of time with his father who is either very confused or not that confused really, but obviously, always, in need of care. He also spends time with his mother, who he is nearly always sarcastic to, instantly regretting it every time, his brother, his cousin and various other people he hasn't seen in twenty-five years or more.

His old, much respected, English teacher shows up and re-introduces him to many people from his past, one of whom he starts a sexual relationship with. The teacher is revealed as having had a sexual relationship himself, with one of his students, a fifteen year old. This comes out, the teacher admits it, resigns and goes to India in search of the next stage in his life. The girl, now a woman, commits suicide. So does someone else. One of the people in the home with Len's father dies. Len's brother and cousin form a suicide pact and so on.

Things happen in this book, in the short space of time that Len is in Nectar. Most of them Len, or possibly the fact of Len's return, is a catalyst for. It is tempting to believe that this is the reason for the book. Nectar is a sleepy suburb that only wakes up on the return of the prodigal son. I think this would be a simplistic interpretation. Many things have happened in Nectar while Len was aimlessly traversing the globe. Many things will happen after he leaves. We are just privileged to see a snapshot of the life there when Len is part of it.

And it is a privilege. This is a thoughtful, beautifully written novel. Initially, it is very heavy on dialogue, but this is extremely well handled. Hoffman clearly delineates which character is speaking, without descending into "Len said", "Joan inserted", "Joe interjected", etc. I never got lost in the conversations and they carried the action forward as they should. As the novel progressed, philosophical concerns came more to the fore, initially with Len's old teacher, Mr. Bloom, who I must admit to finding a bit of a pain, and then with two Rabbis. Len himself is also always thinking and we, the novel is in the first person, are privy to his thoughts.

This is a novel which, while moving slowly and gently onwards, is involving and stimulating. It also contains a character, one of Len's father's fellow inmates in the Albert Einstein Hospital Geriatric Centre, who believes himself to be Isaac, son of Abraham. This man is perfectly coherent and logical in his beliefs and is a delight each time he appears.

Alzheimer's seems to be being dealt with more and more in the modern novel. Michael Hoffman's take on it is rather a good one. I would like to recommend his book to those looking for a thoughtful, considered, intelligent read.

Buy this book from Amazon


ISBN 1 4033 6941 0 (hardback); 1 4033 6939 9 (e-book); 1 4033 6940 2 (paperback)
Published by 1stBooks, 2003
288pp, retail price $

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Review by Chris Williams