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The War Zone of Childhood : THE KINGDOM OF BROOKLYN, By Merrill Joan Gerber (Longstreet Press: $18.95; 239 pp.)

October 11, 1992|Lynne Sharon Schwartz | Schwartz's most recent novel is "Leaving Brooklyn."

The time is the 1940s; the place is Brooklyn, a world unto itself--uneasy seaside domain of leafy avenues and luxuriant parks bordered by humble two-story row houses. A good many of their Jewish occupants are only a generation away from persecution, and marked indelibly by the perils their parents fled.

Like Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep" and Christina Stead's "The Man Who Loved Children," Merrill Joan Gerber's superb evocation of an anguished child's faltering steps toward consciousness is set in a house divided, in this case literally: mother, father and two small daughters on the first floor, unmarried aunt and widowed grandmother upstairs. Below is the cellar, dark realm of terror to Issa, the child narrator, where the house's entrails, especially the fiery furnace, personify the ancient furies that shape the fates lived out above.

Gerber has written often--and grippingly--of tormented families, most recently in her award-winning "King of the World," about marital abuse, but never as daringly as here: Issa is just 3 years old, "hardly a person yet," when she begins her 10-year chronicle of violent conflicts and crises. The passions propelling this compact, eloquent novel are virulent, reaching back into the past and shadowing the future: It sometimes reads as though the tribulations of Medea and Jason were told from the point of view of the children.

It is wartime, to begin with; uniformed soldiers are everywhere; housewives roll bandages and save tin cans. After a while that distant war ends, but the domestic battles continue with no relief in sight. The tyrant is Issa's mother, Ruth, an embittered emotional terrorist who rules the passive family by her headaches, tantrums and suicide threats, but most of all by the force of her uncontrollable malice.

Ruth is hyperbolic, a figure whose misery exceeds her circumstances; readers who require a neat post-Freudian etiology of neurosis and family dysfunction will be unsatisfied. Her only consolation is playing the piano, repetitively, desperately. "She rocks as if in pain on the piano bench," Issa observes, "and her fingers play the mournful, grieving notes without her seeming to know it. . . . She lifts her head but doesn't see me. . . . Her face is covered with tears, is slick and shining with them. They drip down, over her fingers, over the keys. On and on she plays."

Issa's father, an antiques dealer who brings her CARE packages in the form of cartons of old books from estate sales, is sweet-natured but ineffectual, bound to his wife by sex and duty. Aunt Gilda, who runs an unlicensed hairdressing business upstairs, is a second mother to Issa--in a wry reversal of legend, the good stepmother is no match for the wicked and more beautiful mother. Indeed, Issa wishes guiltily that the acne-scarred Gilda were her real mother.

The domestic turmoil revealed in a limpid, pure prose that mirrors the child's raw perceptions serves as background for the real story: Issa's grasping the paradoxes of the inner life and becoming a person despite the bleakness and cruelty that thwart her: "Bad things often give you good feelings, but no one is allowed to say this. Bad things force you to be excited, to push yourself out in a new way, to get busy, then get tired, then be happy to rest, too tired to be afraid."

For what is imprinted first and most powerfully on the child's mind is fear. Fear of accidents, sickness and death, fear that her father may have a mishap and not return from work. Fear of school, looming in the future. Fear of the wide world outside, of life itself; an elemental, unexplained fear bred in the bone and nourished by history. Even the roller skates Issa longs for are forbidden--emblem of freedom, mobility, and camaraderie.

Above all, Issa learns fear of her mother, a fear not tempered but exacerbated by fascination, love and dependence. Small wonder that she cannot swallow the food her mother forces on her, or that she is a fretful child, craving attention, aping her mother's headaches and tantrums. "My mother wants an exact copy of herself," Issa knows, but cannot always comply: "Although I may be hers, I am not her."

Her strength is in resilience: "Grownups can be wrong and grownups can be stupid," she discovers early on. "I am shocked but deeply satisfied by this idea. I feel stronger, knowing it." Soon she grasps another energizing truth: "Anything that happens away from the house is good. Anything that happens in the house gives me terrible stomach pains."

Clever and alert, Issa watches and records the milestones of family life--illness, death, birth--reeling past chaotically.

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