“The Lost Woman in the Court of Azaleas” by Eileen Meropol; “Victorious” Leshai Sarid

The Lost Woman in the Court of Azalea

Written by Elle Meropol; Red Hen Press

Northampton author Elaine Meropol used her first four novels to explore how an array of social and political issues, from the rise of the American security state in the aftermath of 9/11 to the split in the Vietnam War, played out in different lives. People.

In her new book, Lost Women of Azalea Court, Meropol draws on a chapter from local history – formerly Northampton State Hospital – as the backdrop to a mystery that examines the secrets, lies and heart-wrenching stories of a young group of families. The novel, set in Northampton, is also a test of how society treats the mentally ill and the unexpected ways in which people can come together.

Azalea Court is the fictional name of six bungalows, formerly part of staff housing from a psychiatric hospital that was nearby. These six cottages, set close to each other amid trees and gardens, are now occupied by six families, most of whom do not have much interaction with each other, although some have lived there for years.

That changes when an elderly resident, Iris Bloom, suddenly disappears. At first, Eris is suspected of being a victim of creeping dementia: when the police are called, some neighbors remember that lately she’s seemed distracted, even somewhat frightened, or “not the same,” as one of them put it.

Her husband, Asher, now 94, was the last chief psychiatrist at the state hospital. He told the cops he started self-medicating Iris a few weeks before his sudden onset of dementia. The principal investigator, Sandra McPhee, appears surprised that Usher wouldn’t have brought his wife to another doctor but told him that she and her fellow officers would do everything in their power to find Iris.

But the search for her becomes a catalyst for the resentment, suspicion, pain, and turbulent history of Azalea Court’s people—particularly women—to begin to surface. Meropol tells the story from the point of view of multiple characters, using short chapters that introduce new angles and perspectives to the story, which in turn move it in unexpected directions.

There’s Evelyn, for example, who lives next door to Blums and despises Asher. She once worked at a state hospital as a nurse but was traumatized by the assault she suffered there, an assault she had long been convinced Asher covered up for his role as lead psychiatrist. Now she suspects Usher of his wife’s disappearance.

Another woman, with the name Gandalf inspired by Tolkien, is afraid to speak to the police and always keeps a certain distance from her neighbours; She has emotional and psychological scars from a brutal encounter a few years ago with the Department of Homeland Security. (Gandalf is actually a character from one of Meropol’s earlier novels, “On Hurricane Island.”)

Meropol also introduces daughter Lexi, Asher and Iris, who lives elsewhere in Northampton and feels guilty for not spending more time with her mother; Gloria, a homeless woman who often parked her car near the Azalea Court; And Agee, who, along with her longtime husband, felt ostracized in the neighbourhood, probably because of her political beliefs.

These “lost women,” including Detective McPhee, will find themselves growing closer despite their differences as the search for Eris continues, revealing the personal stories they’ve hidden. Meanwhile, Asher looks back at the trauma he suffered during the Holocaust – he was the only survivor of his family – and wonders if this experience led him to make a series of mistakes as an old man.

Meeropol provides some background on the horrors of institutional care at Northampton State Hospital – I used the hospital’s source material to tell it – and how some women may have been locked up there just because they were considered “difficult”.

In fact, the missing women in the novel include those who lived their lives in closed wards – and were then buried in a hospital cemetery. This legacy casts a shadow over the events at Azalea Court, Meropol writes: “We are beginning to suspect that when you scratch the surface of a place with so much history and such profound strength, unexplained and possibly supernatural things can slip through the cracks.”

Eileen Meripol participates in a number of public events in September associated with the publication of “The Lost Women of Azalea Court,” including a tour around the grounds of the Old State Hospital. More details are available at ellenmeeropol.com/.


by Yishai Sarid, translated by Yarden Greenspan;

restless books

The Israeli writer Yishai Sarid gained significant attention a few years ago with his novel The Beast of Memory, which took a close look at the culture of Holocaust remembrance in Israel. The New York Times called it “a brilliant short novel that serves as a brave, sharp-toothed synopsis against letting the past devour the present.”

Sarid’s new novel, “The Victorious,” translated by Yarden Greenspan (who has also translated “The Memory Beast”) deals with another controversial topic: how the Israeli army works to empower the men and women in its ranks to make them efficient killers, and the toll it takes on the psyche of the people.

Like “The Memory Beast,” the new novel is published at Restless Books, the Amherst-New York Press founded by writer Ilan Stavans, who teaches at Amherst College.

Abigail, an IDF military psychologist, tells the story of “Victorius” who has spent her career playing seemingly disparate roles: helping soldiers deal with the trauma of war while also showing commanders how they can transform those same forces into effective, resilient killers.

As the novel opens, Abigail, a single mother, faces a new reckoning. Her cute son, Shaoli, is now eligible for military enlistment and has decided to join the elite paratrooper unit, where training will be intense and the risk of combat high. The boy’s father is a leading commander in the Israeli army. Abigail has always insisted that he never disclosed his relationship with Shawley.

Abigail believes in her work — the ultimate goal of having well-organized soldiers is to “defeat the enemy,” she says — even though her elderly father, who is also a psychiatrist, has long been critical of her. “Capitalism has translated into military terms,” ​​he says. “You do not treat people. You are a servant of power.”

Her father also notes that Abigail has had warts and lesions on her fingers — a sure sign, he says, that her life is out of balance, and she is troubled by the inconsistencies of her work.

Abigail does not deny these contradictions. In one scene, she oversees a mock but brutally realistic interrogation of a young helicopter as part of her training, and the session ends with the woman urinating on herself. Abigail then consoles her; She is determined that female recruits will be as tough as volunteers, but also says of her job, “You split them up and then try to fix them…like some psychopathic collectors.”

As the military prepares for an unspecified “major operation,” Abigail’s unit, her fears about her son, and some creeping doubts about her work begin to blur the line between her personal life and her career. Asked to assess the state of mind of a sniper unit that killed unidentified civilians, presumably Palestinians, she begins an affair with the unit’s young commander – who also holds her finger on the trigger of his rifle as he shoots a man.

Sarid himself has served in the Israeli army for several years, including as an intelligence officer, and he draws on his crisp, unadorned writing style to examine the difficult questions of patriotism, national identity, and the ongoing fighting in the Middle East.

“Israel recruits young men, almost children, as young as 18, some of whom have to go to combat units and kill,” the writer said in an interview last year. “They grow up like my children… They are no different from the others. You have to train them to kill. That is wonderful and tragic.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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