Friedman’s ‘Shovel’ fails to dig deep with characters

Mimi Pysno

A “near miss” is the best description for Carl Friedman’s “The Shovel and the Loom.” While there is merit in her ideas, the characters and story lines within her novel, as well as her writing style, don’t help her cause.

The initial problem with Friedman’s book is that I simply did not care.

There wasn’t anything to draw me in, and nothing that made me want to turn the pages. The story doesn’t really begin until a fair way into this short novel, which doesn’t bode well for finishing it. The novel follows Chaya, a philosophy student and daughter of Holocaust survivors in Antwerp. She becomes the nanny for a Chasidic family in the Jewish quarter, and as a non-believer, she has a few problems to face. That said, none of them are all that interesting or thought-provoking. Her struggles are not enticing or alluring.

This problem can best be linked back to the fact that the characters are annoying or, at best, underdeveloped. As a first-person narrative, Chaya’s descriptions of her own life are unrealistic. It is unlikely that anyone in real life would write or speak as she does about the place they live or the people they know.

The only other characters we meet are Mr. Apfelschnitt, Chaya’s parent’s neighbor, and the Kalman children, most notably Simcha. If nothing else, these characters have the most stereotypical and trite names possible for this story. Simcha, a four-year-old, is mildly endearing with his formulaic pants-wetting, yet this is not enough to draw in a reader.

Additionally, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. Each conversation is the same, beginning with a brief exchange of greetings followed by an oddly impassioned monologue.

These speeches always seem unwarranted and random. They may make more sense if the characters were developed enough to have an inkling of their motivations, but since that is not the case, these monologues are simply annoying.

After the monologues, there is an awkward set of farewell greetings, resulting in more confusion on the part of the reader than he or she previously felt.

The only dialogue that saved it all from the gutter was the way Chaya talks to Simcha. She explains things to the toddler as a young woman would. Her answers to him are appropriate and engaging, adding an aspect of realism to a story that is simply hard to believe.

It isn’t awful, but it certainly isn’t good. With so many books in the world that do have engaging characters and magnetic plot lines, I’d say skip it.