Using fiction to bring readers around to one’s point of view is not just difficult, it’s also very risky. Even when a novelist is not attempting to sway the reader to a particular viewpoint, plotting a story to reach a certain ending can force the writer to ignore inconvenient facts, portray odd character behavior, or rely on twisted logic.
The Legacy (Bombardier Books, 2018)) is British political commentator Melanie Phillips’ first novel. In it, her protagonist, Russell Woolfe, a British Jewish TV producer, comes to see the flaws in his previous worldview. In particular, as a result a series of unexpected events, he revises his connection, or the lack thereof, to Judaism as well as alters his relationship with his daughter.
Book-marking Woolfe’s personal journey are two historical massacres of Jews that Phillips mines for their ability to change her protagonist’s view of the world and his place in it.
Woolfe learns of both tragedies when he is approached at a service for his deceased father by an elderly man who asks him to translate the contents of a rare book written in an odd form of Hebrew. It turns out the book is a first-hand telling of a 12th century atrocity against the Jewish residents of York, England. When Woolfe learns the book’s owner is not who he thought, he undertakes a second quest––one that results in his uncovering the horrific murder of thousands of Polish Jews in a specific city in Poland during World War II.
Poland has been in the news lately as a result of the passage of a law that outlaws claims that the Polish people were involved in the Holocaust. The true story of the Jedwabne atrocity refutes the assertion that the Poles were innocent by-standers and, in Phillips’ story, bringing out the truth of that event helps her protagonist realize that his lack of knowledge about his family’s past represents a hole in his life.
It’s clear that Phillips seeks through The Legacy to “educate” her readers about the Jewish people being a convenient scapegoat for religious and political tyrants right up to the present. By taking her protagonist to Israel she hopes to open the eyes of liberal Jews to the distortion inherent in the notion that the Palestinian people are victims of Israeli occupation, apartheid, and genocide.
While her story is cleverly constructed and while she avoids hammering readers over the head, hoping to persuade via the transformation of her main character, the question I wonder whether her target readers will feel manipulated. It’s hard to hide your underlying message when you create a character you don’t particularly admire and force him to change as a result of unusual events.
I must also find fault with Phillips’ publisher for putting the following teaser on the back cover: “Does the mystery behind a recently discovered medieval manuscript hold the secret to the survival of the Jewish people?”
The answer to that question is ‘no.’ Worse, it sets forth a false expectation for the novel.
While Phillips clearly had ambitions for the story behind the awakening of one human being, the publisher’s tag line sets up readers to be disappointed. A better tag line would focus on the main character’s story line.
I also wonder if it was the publisher’s decision that the resolution of Woolfe’s changed relationship with his daughter is skimmed over. She seems to disappear from his life in the final chapters except for a reference to his intent to let her move in with him. That omission leaves the reader uncertain whether Woolfe’s awakening occurred in time to save his daughter from her bigoted mother’s oversight.
Despite it’s flaws, The Legacy not only readable, but will make you ponder some difficult questions while learning about some unsettling, but historically accurate, facts about the past. To that end, Phillips is to be applauded.