- Author: Elizabeth Graver
- Genre: Historical Fiction
- Publication Date: April 18, 2023
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books
Thank you to NetGalley and Metropolitan Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
A dazzling Sephardic multigenerational saga that moves from Istanbul to Barcelona, Havana, and New York, exploring displacement, endurance, and family as home.
A kaleidoscopic portrait of one family’s displacement across four countries, Kantika—“song” in Ladino—follows the joys and losses of Rebecca Cohen, feisty daughter of the Sephardic elite of early 20th-century Istanbul. When the Cohens lose their wealth and are forced to move to Barcelona and start anew, Rebecca fashions a life and self from what comes her way—a failed marriage, the need to earn a living, but also passion, pleasure and motherhood. Moving from Spain to Cuba to New York for an arranged second marriage, she faces her greatest challenge—her disabled stepdaughter, Luna, whose feistiness equals her own and whose challenges pit new family against old.
Exploring identity, place and exile, Kantika also reveals how the female body—in work, art and love—serves as a site of both suffering and joy. A haunting, inspiring meditation on the tenacity of women, this lush, lyrical novel from Elizabeth Graver celebrates the insistence on seizing beauty and grabbing hold of one’s one and only life.
As soon as I saw this book, I knew I wanted to read it. I’ve been coming across more Jewish stories, but haven’t found very many that talk about the Sephardic or Mizrahi experience. I really wanted to get my hands on a copy of this book and requested both the ebook and audiobook versions, and was very surprised when I got approved for both of them.
Much like Ashkenazi Jews, those who spent their diaspora in Eastern Europe, spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews also had their own language—Ladino. I’m not familiar with Ladino, but there is a lot of it used throughout this book. All of the Ladino terms are clearly defined in the book, but this is where having the audiobook was especially beneficial, because Gail Shaver, the narrator, did a fantastic job of pronouncing not only Ladino terms, but also French and making them accessible. In addition, there is a focus on songs in the story, and Shaver demonstrates her beautiful singing voice in the audiobook, and I’d have expected nothing less from a book whose title means song.
The story starts when Rebecca is very young, living with her family in Istanbul, Turkey, in 1907. They live a comfortable life, attend a Catholic school, and live in relative peace with their Catholic and Muslim neighbors. However, they tend to stick with the other Jews, and Rebecca’s childhood is a fairly happy one, spent with her best friend. But as things around them change, her father hears of a chance for them to return to Spain, where there family came from before they lived in Turkey. He takes advantage of the opportunity, and the family moves to Barcelona.
However, the Alhambra Decree of 1492, which expelled all practicing Jews from Spain, is still in effect, and no Jews are viewed as citizens of Spain, even if they are born there. This law wasn’t officially revoked until 1968.
While Rebecca and her family were allowed to live and worship as Jews in Spain, they are reluctant to advertise their Jewishness. They keep quiet about it and try to integrate into Spanish society as best they can, in order to avoid drawing attention and negative consequences. The story is told increasingly through Rebecca’s POV as she matures, and marries.
Ultimately, we follow Rebecca and her family through ups and downs, in this very much character-driven story. Normally I prefer a plot-driven story, but I was fascinated not just by what was going on in Rebecca’s life, but also what life was like for Sephardic Jews in the diaspora, especially how different it could be from country to country and in different periods of time.
I also think it’s important to mention that there’s a major character in the story who has a disability, and that this occurs in the 1930s, when accessibility and services weren’t a priority, or in some cases, even available. When Rebecca first meets Luna, her new disabled stepdaughter, the girl is being treated as a baby and infantilized, despite the fact that she isn’t a baby and has a physical disability rather than a developmental disability. But since Rebecca is a strong-willed woman and believes that Luna is capable of so much more than the others think. I loved Rebecca’s forward thinking and modern take on Luna’s capacities, and the way that she works with her to strengthen and build her skills, as well as her self-esteem.
Ultimately, this is a fascinating and layered family saga about love, family, trust, overcoming obstacles, and finding job or making it yourself when you can’t find it. The women in this story are all so incredibly strong, and it was so interesting to learn more about the Sephardic experience, but also to see the similarities and not just the differences. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this story was the way it’s inspired by the author’s own grandmother, Rebecca Cohen Baruch Levy, and there are family photographs included at the start of nearly every chapter. This is absolutely a book not to miss.
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