The Red Magician follows Kisci, a young Jewish girl coming of age in her Hungarian village. The sense of foreboding goes unsaid, but it is there from the start. One imagines mountain forests, isolated hamlets of peace, ready to be wiped clean by rampaging hordes. Kisci you see lives in a town where the local rabbi is also an adept magician. He sees the future and wields his power harshly.
Our first experience with the rabbi is when he lectures villagers to stop sending their children to school because they are teaching Hebrew. And that knowing Hebrew opens up the impressionable to abuse of the faith. But most importantly the rabbi declares Hebrew should only be spoken for the arrival of the Messiah and anyone attending the school is cursed.
Well, into this environment we see Kisci plunge ahead, inquisitive, well mannered but adventurous. She is becoming a woman and at that moment, with the town in the midst of changing seasons, spiritually and physically, along comes Vörös, the red magician. His flaming red hair and mysterious stature within the community immediately draw Kisci to him.
We especially liked these characters because they were not romantic. Lesser scribes today would have chosen the James Dean route, while ham fisted cherry picking ancient religious traditions and myths. Not Goldstein, she chooses a truly classic relationship: spiritual artist and acolyte.
Goldstein’s ability to deal with intense, dark themes is effortless and is unlike most childrens books. You know when the warnings are unheeded what lay ahead. The Pogrom. The Holocaust. The spiritual heft of the Holocaust can weigh mighty on an author and book. Yet Goldstein handles it with brevity and heart ache. Could we have absorbed more about the heart break of the camps? Yes. But our depths of sorrow were already plumbed bone deep.
Vörös role in the book is as unpredictable mystical spur, unsure of how powerful this red magician may be early on, you learn when he reappears at a critical moment how his magic effects Kisci.
You find yourself rooting for Kisci as she find despair to embrace than hope. You want her to go forward, but understand why she wouldn’t. Her life was in many ways, over. Yet the final 1/3 of the book has an amazing folkloric feel to it. A magical journey that is less about where they go, but how they get there and what it does to Kisci’s psyche along the way.
We appreciated the author’s knowledge of Jewish magical history. Unlike many today, there was no droning on or showy expositions that felt like pompous displays of “knowledge” (aka the information dug up my many authors research assistants.)
Goldstein properly folds in the golem, demons like Lilith and angelic spirits to perfect effect. They are not plot devices, but dabs of paint that highlight the story canvas. (For an outstanding blog on Jewish magic and myth check out Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis’ Jewish Myth, Magic an Mysticism.)
The Red Magician flows through the seasons like a breeze, never lingering too long in a single place. Yet creating those ‘moments.’ And if time is spent a beat or two longer than usual, it’s for value. No extraneous action or words. It is crisp and uncompromising.
The Red Magician deftly switches between harsh reality and these gauzy in-between realms. And as the book reaches one climax after another you will ache for a better future for Kisci while wishing her a chance to go back once more to a childhood gone all too fast.
Don’t let its children moniker fool you. Many adults could use a dark literary dose of childhood every so often.
The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein was purchased for review by the Boston Book Bums.