Fiction - Border crossing

The Bear Boy

Cynthia Ozick <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0297848089

It would be an oversimplification, but not completely inaccurate, to describe Cynthia Ozick's new novel as Jane Eyre relocated to Depression-era New York. Despite its serious themes (families cast adrift by conflict, the inescapable burden of the past) Ozick's approach is fresh and engaging. Her characters grab you in the opening pages and hold your attention throughout.

An orphan at 18, Rose Meadows - bright, self-sufficient and in love with Austen and the Brontes - has been left with little by the death of her dishonest father apart from a battered copy of an old children's book. Her only remaining living relative, her cousin Bertram, is keen to take her in, but his communist girlfriend puts a stop to this. In need of a place to stay, Rose takes an ambiguous position within the household of the Mitwisser clan, a family of German Jewish refugees reluctantly transported to the American east coast.

For the Mitwissers, disorder is "a rule of life". Unkempt children rattle through the corridors while their mother hides in her bedroom, consumed by "something deeper than lethargy and more perplexing". The father, Professor Mitwisser, is a stubborn, offhand man whose days are taken up researching an obscure Semitic sect. Frau Mitwisser was also once a respected academic, but she has become fixated on all that her family has lost. Only Anneliese, the eldest daughter, seems to have come to terms with their new life, though her pride initially causes her to clash with Rose.

Barely has Rose become accustomed to this chaotic existence than things are further disrupted by the return of the children's tutor, James A'Bair. A Christopher Robin figure, who was made famous by his inclusion in his father's enormously successful series of children's books, James is the "Bear Boy" of the title. An unsettled soul, he is always on the move, struggling to shake off the idealised image that exists of him as a child. Though he can, and does, cross borders on a whim, without need of the illicit documents that the Mitwissers required to get to America, he is no less of a refugee than his former employers; like them, he is unable to escape his past. The success of his father's books, however, has made him independently wealthy, and the Mitwisser family, much to Frau Mitwisser's despair, has become financially dependent on him.

The title of the US edition of Ozick's novel was Heir to the Glimmering World. The decision to rename it here places A'Bair's character in the foreground. But while his story does have parallels with that of the Mitwissers, these are somewhat overstated. His inclusion in the narrative feels forced, a weak link in an otherwise beautifully imagined world.

Ozick's prose has the spark and flow of the writers she alludes to, and she man-ages to shed fresh light on the immigrant experience. The Mitwissers are a proud lot, sometimes haughty and often arrogant, but the world they knew has been taken away from them and they are dealing with this in the only way they can. Ozick perfectly captures what it is to lose everything, to be uprooted against one's will. The characters are well real-ised: Professor Mitwisser is far from the fearsome figure he initially appears to be, and Bertram is a rumpled, kind-hearted creation with a selfish streak. Rose, however, remains something of an enigma. A Fanny Price with extra resilience and practicality, she never ceases to be an interloper in the unsettled world in which she finds herself. Ultimately, this is the Mitwissers' story; there is no "Reader, I married him" moment for Rose, although her story does come to a resolution of sorts.

Ozick's inclusion among the contenders for the first Man Booker International Prize is bound to bring her worldwide recognition. An intelligent and delightful writer, she has taken a familiar voice - that of the plucky orphaned heroine - and reinvented it in an original way.