The title is good – short without being mundane. (How many books have you seen with titles like “Fear,” or “Tomorrow”?) It fits the book well because this is the story of a young man who is guarding something with his life. The guarding of this object has become his life, or the only positive part of it, unless you count drug highs before they crash. Adam is the product of a dysfunctional or almost nonexistent family background, and is now quite a hardcore drug addict in New York City. He does all manner of drugs including rivers of alcohol, but is bottoming out from heroin as we meet him, in what is a chilling opening sequence. He is trying to get clean. Adam tends to keep his hand in his pocket a lot, holding on to something in there.
I say his family life was almost nonexistent, as it consisted mainly of an elderly grandfather. This fellow, elegant in his faded way, has a secret that he has kept from all the world but for his live-in grandson. He owns a piece of jewelry worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if it’s not priceless. Only later do we learn how old the brooch is, and what it meant to the life of the solitary grandfather, and the larger Jewish culture around him. Safekeeping stands apart from other examinations of Jewish life that I’ve read, in that it is so gritty, and street-level. No doctors and lawyers here. The action takes place almost entirely on a kibbutz in Israel, and it’s nothing fancy. Indeed, I was impressed that the author could make such a stark, institutional setting so vibrant and alive. Of course part of it was that she describes the fields, and natural wonders of fruit trees and living, growing places in the agricultural settlement. But then we have the people.
The author does not fixate on her main character. We are served up a rich tableau of personalities here, almost all of them struggling. There are no cushy scenes; these people are about surviving. We are also not drowned in sub-plots. The characters ultimately tie in to the main thrust of the story, which is a wonder: The junkie, Adam, is obsessed with returning the fabulous sapphire brooch to the woman his grandfather intended to have it. Adam sees doing as this being the redemption of his otherwise wasted youth, and the pivot into a new life. He has only the sketchiest information left to him after his grandfather dies. But the woman in question had lived on the Sadot Hadar kibbutz in 1947, when the grandpa arrived there more dead than alive after his release from a concentration camp.
If Adam’s quest seems unbelievable (wouldn’t an addict just sell the brooch and get high?) I can tell you that the author makes it work. Adam’s drive to achieve this spiritual mission is just barely greater than his addiction. We are shown that an ancient tradition exists in his family’s branch of Judaism of a man giving one special gift to one special woman in his life. There can be only that one. Adam seeks to fulfill his grandfather’s life by giving the gift and making the connection that was interrupted so long ago. Not every last brain cell of Adam’s head is explained for us, which works for me, because the human heart is unexplainable. Is Adam’s quest unbelievable? Maybe in a thumbnail sketch of this novel, but in the experience of reading the book? No, not at all.
This author takes chances and breaks rules with great effect, as well. Flashbacks are woven into the flow of real time events seamlessly, the way memories come to you as you go about your day. The dreaded, forbidden, excoriated, omniscient narrator style appears, including multiple points of view occurring within a single paragraph. I would be flagged and then flogged for doing this, so I wouldn’t try. Jessamyn Hope makes it work. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel.
There is much more I could say, but to sum it up, the writing is from the heart. It communicates in a straightforward way, nothing flamboyant and overwrought. The descriptions of settings and human personalities are superb. And you don’t have to be Jewish to get into it. I’m not, and I give Safekeeping five stars.