Friday, October 24, 2008

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf is the story of a mother whose five year old son sinks into a coma. At least on the surface anyway. With a basic story premise like that, I was afraid I was about to embark on a journey where I ended up reading a Lifetime movie melodrama in which a poor mother watches her life fall apart as her child struggles to resurrect himself from a deathlike sleep. Instead, what Dorf has done is write a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the term.

Let me explain. I’ve read so-called psychological thrillers which were not the least bit thrilling and whatever psychological relevance the story contained must have been implied in the contextual psychosis (or even psychoses) of the author. Without the thrill or context, I ended up feeling cheated by the promise of both. But in Saving Elijah Dorf has taken a potentially melodramatic (ergo tedious) idea and infused it with something so interesting that the pain of the experience is forced upon the reader with a relentlessness that is undeniable.

When the protagonist, Dinah Rosenberg Galligan, watches the way people avoid looking at her son, Elijah, lying in the coma, the reader understands that urge to look away, to not see something so frightening. I literally sighed tears when Dinah’s friend Becky visits the hospital and places a long and tender kiss on the comatose child’s forehead, aware of the deep compassion such an insignificant gesture suggests.

This is only one layer of the story. Dinah is being haunted by a spirit, an angel or a demon or a ghost. The reader isn’t told clearly and just when you think you know you realize how very wrong you are. Dorf does a brilliant job of shifting the story to meet and yet surprise expectations. Her use of flashbacks is beyond perfection. I don’t know that I’ve ever read an author whose ability to move in and out of past and present is so masterful.

Okay. Perhaps I exaggerate but it’s been a long time. The characters are, for the most part, well developed and realized. My favorites are possibly Ellen Shoenfeld and Dinah. There is something so familiarly tragic about the choices she makes throughout her life. Don’t expect any easy answers. The book begins asking the hard questions about God and the purpose of evil. You know, the questions about which a myriad of books have been and have yet to be written and will never fully realize nor resolve the issues. And that’s okay.

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