Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Call it Sleep – Henry Roth ------ 3 STARS

Like me, you probably have never heard of this novel. I was recently flipping through a book that included the best pieces of American literature even written, and this novel was included. In the critical evaluation included, the critic stated that it is one of the most underrated books of the past century and is a "classic". Well that, along with the author being my namesake, was enough for me to check it out.

Call It Sleep was written by Henry Roth (no relation) over 70 years ago. It tells the story of a young boy (between 6-8 years old over the course of the novel) who is growing up in New York in the early 1900s. He is a Jewish immigrant, and the novels basic story is a retelling of parts of his daily life. In the critique I mentioned earlier, it was stated that this novel is the preeminent story about Jewish immigrant life in America. I cannot disagree.

Although I had some issues with this novel, there is no disagreement that this novel eloquently and accurately tells the story of immigrant life. Roth beautifully makes the reader see, feel, hear, and taste all aspects of immigrant life during this period (by the way, shocking -- immigrant life is HARD). The story is nicely written, and the description and detail of ordinary things is as good as anything else I have ever read. The plot, although a bit slow, tells a fairly interesting story and includes a solid ending which helps save the novel a bit as it grows dull at some points.

There were some problems I had with the novel though. First, it was written about 70 years ago and, in my opinion, many of the books from that time and earlier do not have the same pace as modern books. Each chapter does not finish with a big mystery that pushes you on and there is not constant action and excitement. Normally I would not care, but this book was very slow and there were pages of description with nothing really occurring.

One of the more frustrating, yet kind of cool parts of the book, was that whenever the main character was speaking to other kids his age, his dialogue was written as that of a child and recent immigrant. This made it extremely difficult to get through much of the dialogue as it took a great deal of effort to actually sound out what was said to understand. Here is an example " It c'n catch rats, dot's wot yuh do wit' it. See dis little door? De rat gizz in like dot." It may seem easy to understand but when this goes on for 400 pages, it can get difficult. However, it made the characters seem more real and helped the reader to better identify with being a young child at that time in New York.

Overall, the story and characters by themselves are nothing great. However, the writing and descriptions of immigrant life are incredibly well done and that is the real value of the novel. I would recommend this novel to anyone who has any interesting in early Jewish immigrant life or immigrant life in New York at the beginning of the past century. 3 stars.

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