The toll of ‘Eternal Life’

The toll of ‘Eternal Life’

Suburban living in the Garden State informs Dara Horn’s new novel

Dara Horn. Photo by Michael B. Priest
Dara Horn. Photo by Michael B. Priest

When prolific Short Hills author Dara Horn publishes a new book, literati notice. Take Horn’s fifth book, “Eternal Light” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), which will be released next week. Author Geraldine Brooks called the novel “a deliciously romantic, highly suspenseful page-turner.” Grand dame of Jewish literature Cynthia Ozick said the book “is bound to turn every mortal reader into a philosopher of cosmic joy.” 

But perhaps the most ringing endorsement came from Ariel Levenson, faculty member at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston and Horn’s younger sister, who called “Eternal Light” her “best book ever.”

Disregarding sibling subjectivity, the accolades are deserving for an author who has published a quintet of novels by the age of 40 and whose resume includes earning a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard. She’s also raising four children. 

A quick synopsis of “Eternal Light”: It’s a story of woman named Rachel who is unable to die. Her life begins in Jerusalem in the era of the second Temple, and over the course of the novel she is reincarnated over two millennia in ancient and modern settings that span the globe, such as a psychiatrist’s office, a market in ancient Aleppo, Incan ruins in Peru, and the inner courtyard of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. 

Yet for all the phantasmagoric time travel, brought to life through Horn’s attention to sensory details, “Eternal Light” is firmly rooted in New Jersey and inspired by the mundanity of everyday life.   

“I would joke that this is my most autobiographical book,” Horn, a fourth-generation Essex County resident, told NJJN over cappuccino at a Maplewood café. 

New Jersey is the unspecified location for the modern-day scenes, including one local readers will recognize as South Mountain Reservation (Horn calls it her “gym” because she hikes there daily): “… the car careened along tight turns through the nature reservation, the hilly forest on the east end of town.”   

There’s also the train tunnel in an “industrial wasteland near the Hudson River” where Rachel has a rendezvous with her also-immortal flame, Elazar. Horn said the site is a tunnel whose construction Gov. Chris Christie halted years ago. But less prosaic than Jersey politics is that it mirrors Hezekiah’s Tunnel in Jerusalem, an ancient waterway, and secret meeting place of Rachel and Elazar during the time of the second Temple.

Similar to the tunnel reference, “Eternal Life” abounds with literary and historic parallels. Take Elazar, who worked in the Temple as a kohen and becomes a computer programmer. “Programming is the most familiar thing I’ve done,” he tells Rachel, comparing coding to the laws surrounding a red heifer. “Everything is about step-by-step instructions, with conditionals built in and no room for error.” 

The genesis for the novel, according to Horn, was “having everything in my life repeating all the time.” Some examples: She was born at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, as were two of her children. The late Dr. Wesley Boodish was hers and her kids’ pediatrician. Horn and her daughter had the same kindergarten teacher at the Hartshorn School in Short Hills. And she and her children learned to swim in the pool at the JCC MetroWest in West Orange.

“One of the experiences of having a larger-than-average family is a lot of these experiences of raising children repeats,” she said. Horn was never the weepy parent at pre-school graduations, as she was all too aware that the next one wasn’t far behind. The years before her youngest started kindergarten (just this fall) felt interminable. “I can’t believe he’s only in kindergarten — it only took 12 years to get out of pre-school,” she laughed.  

While parenting is treasured by Horn, who works out of her living room around her children’s school schedules, she acknowledged it can feel burdensome at times. 

In the novel, after bearing hundreds of children and feeling literally, eternally tethered to many people, it’s easy to understand why the tired Rachel seeks the relief of death. She tells her modern-day psychiatrist, “I need this to end. But the only way it can end is if I die.” 

“Eternal Life” is not a treatise on modern parenting, in spite of many great soundbites, such as “children are a gift from God because they give us permission to fail.” The novel is multi-layered and one emergent theme is the preservation of Judaism in the aftermath of the destruction of the second Temple.

“It’s really a metaphor for Jewish history,” said Horn about her book. “This is someone [Rachel] who survived for 2,000 years and should be dead.” 

Horn’s fictional Rachel plays a key role in Jewish history as the character of her first son was the real-life Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the man who, according to lore, when forced to decide between the two, chose to protect his students over saving Jerusalem from destruction. Through negotiations with General Vespasian, the future Roman emperor, Yochanan secured the safety of his school in Yavneh, which became the site of the Sanhedrin and an important center of Jewish scholarship for centuries. 

Horn said in conversation multiple times that she’s not a Talmud scholar, although she’s clearly very intelligent and excitable about obscure topics such as Hellenistic kohanim (yes, they did exist). She said she reads what she needs to know for her books, which for this one included the Talmudic tractates of Nazir and Yoma, with writings by Josephus and Jacob Neusner thrown into her research. She said she picks up biblical details as a regular Torah reader at Agudath Israel of West Essex. 

A particularly enjoyable aspect of her book is that her characters don’t struggle with their Jewish identities; that is, they struggle with God, but their Jewish identities aren’t burdensome or riddled with guilt, as is often the case in books written by contemporary Jewish-American authors.  

Perhaps this is a continuation of Horn’s autobiographical theme; her Jewish identity is unconflicted, and as Judaism frames her life, it similarly shapes the narrative of “Eternal Life.” 

Despite her wealth of knowledge there was one question Horn couldn’t answer during her interview with NJJN: What do you want the reader to take away from your book?  

“You write one book, but when you publish it everyone is reading a different book from the one you wrote.” Which, she said, is not necessarily a bad thing. “They’re sometimes reading a better book than the one you wrote.” 

Don’t think so.

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