In 1901, a Lithuanian family leaves home to escape anti-Semitic laws. Allowed to choose one item to bring along, Ruth, the youngest member, tucks a compass into her pocket.
An apt and sly beginning for “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan,” Ruth Gilligan’s tender debut novel, which follows three interconnected characters over a century as they journey through foreign internal and external territories, searching for their place in the world. A compass, after all can help you reach your destination, but it can’t show you how to be there.
Ruth is an impressionable girl with peculiar eyes, one green, one brown. She and her father, a dreamer, storyteller and aspiring playwright; her pragmatic Zionist mother who yearns for the homeland Israel; and her beautiful sister, an aspiring actress, set off by ship for a new life in America, where they imagine “buildings that scraped the sky” … and “the giant lady with a crown and a torch who welcomed the weary ships in.” Only it’s not New York City they find at the end of their journey, but Cork City, Ireland.
Her father deals with their displacement as he does with other difficulties. He creates stories: “What if a man and a woman court via pigeon mail until the woman falls in love with the pigeon instead?” Raised on such tales and others told by their Irish housemaid, Ruth plants her heart firmly in Irish soil. She has her father’s affliction of communicating through stories, a habit that drives away the man she loves, leaving her alone, a Jewish midwife who tells peculiar stories to calm women in labor.
The second thread follows Shem Sweeney, a gangly, mute teenager who, in 1958, crams his 6-foot frame into a bathroom stall in a Catholic mental hospital. Forbidden to write — his only means of communication — he hides away, scribbling on purloined paper. “So much inside me, gagging to get out.”
After discovering what he believes to be his mother’s “shameful” secret, he became this silent boy. Speaking ill of another is wrong, his rabbi told him. In the hospital he is tormented and called names by a nun who hates Jews. Abandoned by his parents, he dreams of one day reuniting with his mother. Solace comes in writing and friendship with the only other Jew in the facility, a surly foul-mouthed war veteran who lost his legs and is besieged with tremors. He asks Shem to record his story of a beautiful Dublin woman with one green eye and one brown eye who he once loved and lost.
And the third thread takes place in 2011. Aisling Creedon, an Irish Catholic in London who writes obituaries for a newspaper, is riding the subway in abject loneliness when a banker who loves magic sits beside her, and then makes a paper swan appear from her pocket. A romantic gesture turns into a love affair, a proposal and self-examination as Aisling is torn between her Catholic self and the Jewish self she might become. It is Aisling who gives a modern voice to the perplexities and contradictions of love, identity and independence as she considers a Judaic conversion.
But these are just snippets. There’s much more to explore. Richly layered with stories within stories and unexpected connections, this is one of those books I find myself thinking about days later. A wonderful read with Gilligan’s beautiful prose warmed by her compassion for travelers in the world, seeking love, family and home.
Elfrieda Abbe is a book critic in Milwaukee.
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan
Publisher: Tin House Books, 336 pages, $15.95.