Silent Bird by novelist Reina Lisa Menasche
Book review by Ariele Johannson
With podcast interview by editor Miriam Raftery on "East County Magazine Live!" radio show KNSJ 89.1 FM: Listen.
Silent Bird, a novel by Reina Lisa Menasche, could be remembered for its exotic French landscape and romance, or for its treatment of difficult subjects. Maybe it will be reread for its charming humor, an inner view of two young lovers moving too fast, or Pilar, the protagonist learning to adjust to a new culture with its linguistic challenges. There are great descriptions of the meeting of two divergent cultures through the budding and then continually strengthening relationship of Pilar and her lover.
It could also be remembered for its irresistible combination of all of these, but it will be remembered.
Pilar Russell, a young American painter, goes to France against the will of the matriarchs of her Jewish family from Long Island, New York. Pilar lovingly and unabashedly pokes fun at her mother and grandmother in the telling of her story of life in Montpellier, a French town that causes her to flash back to her childhood.
As likeable as she is, Pilar is not lucky in love; relationships of real intimacy elude her. She has recurring nightmares. One of these nightmares is finding herself on a boat with her father, afraid that a giant is coming with the rain.
“'It's alright, love. Everything will be just grand, I promise.' Daddy held out his pinky, and I held out mine. the footsteps of the giant shook the boat, and I woke up in a narrow bed next to a man I barely knew, in a country not all that far from the place I'd gone in the boat. I hated that dream. But not as much as I'd hated experiencing it as a little girl."
Pilar’s apparent lack of relationship intimacy is caused by her past brought to the fore by triggering events in the present. Pilar's engagement to Jeannot and her struggle to accept his family become the current trigger in this novel. Another event is the disappearance of a seven-year-old Arab girl from her fiancé’s village. "I would never forget her face: the black hair, sweet dark eyes, wide forehead and bowtie mouth. And that same white handkerchief that had been so rudely yanked off her head and dropped into the dirt by the obnoxious teenager and his pre-teen minions...."
Novelist Menasche (photo, right) gives us an authentic treatment of the cycle of running from bad memories and then running right into them in another geographical location and time. Here and there, we struggle with Pilar through the emergence of her fears with French lover, Jeannot. At times it overtakes her, despite her pluck.
Notably in contrast to her waking dreams of a future with Jeannot are nightmares that make her want to lose him. Jeannot is a dreamboat with strength, sensitivity, vigor, patience, and lots of amor! “And those legs—oh, Jeannot’s legs spelled a lifestyle. He walked a lot and waited tables, and jiggled his legs to music.” But even he begins to have difficulty understanding her when she disappears into fear and her control slips away.
So this novel goes, engaging from its first provocative sentence to its racing finish when Pilar tries to solve the crime in Jeannot’s village and meets with obstructions at every turn.
Menasche’s protagonist does not remain a silent bird, however, but one bursting with her own expressed will. Pilar does speak her mind, and she does act. Finally, with the help of her new friend, Monique, she works out a solution with which she can really live, rather than just hope.
Reina Menasche is the host of East County Magazine’s “Bookshelf” program on KNSJ 891 FM Radio. Her first novel, Twice Begun, was honored in the 2013 San Diego Book Awards and her other fiction works have been recognized in contests including San Diego Writers and Editors Guild and Southern California Writers Conference. For more information on the author and her book, Silent Bird, visit: