“Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” by Ruth Gilligan— Three Voices and the Jews of Ireland

Gilligan, Ruth. “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan”, Tin House Books, 2017,

Three Voices and the Jews of Ireland

Amos Lassen

Ruth Gilligan gives us a look at the Jews of Ireland in the twentieth century and through three narrators we get a look at what it means to belong and how storytelling can be a redemptive force. As the twentieth century opens, we meet a young girl and her family who emigrated from Lithuania in search of a better life in America but landed in Ireland instead. In 1958, a mute Jewish boy is locked away in a mental institution outside of Dublin and there he becomes friendly with a man who is consumed by the story of the love he lost nearly two decades earlier. In present-day London, an Irish journalist is forced to deal with her conflicting notions of identity and family when her Jewish boyfriend asks her to make a true leap of faith. These are our three stories that not only cross generations but who come together to give us the story of Ireland’s Jewish community. As we read we wrestle with the question of just how far we will go to understand who we really are, and to feel at home in the world.

The novel is set in Ireland and London in three different time periods. In 1958, a mother and father have their son Shem admitted to a private asylum; he has become mute and is an embarrassment to his father. As the novel progresses, Shem’s much beloved mother visits and begs him to find his voice again. But there is more at work inside of him than she may realize, later Shem writes that he wanted to understand if a family could ever really exist without lies and secrets to keep it alive. The definition of love is the focus of the novel.

We move to modern-day London where Aisling, a young Irish-Catholic woman, thinks about religious conversion and wonders what it will do to her relationship with her family. We move again to meet Ruth, a newly immigrated Lithuanian girl who struggles to create a home with her family in Cork, Ireland. Her father embraces the culture, while her mother is bitter and hopes for a new life. Returning to Shem, we see that he has become friends with his roommate at the asylum and begins to examine his own long-held beliefs. What brings these stories together are the themes of family and belonging.

Ruth Gilligan writes expressively of the Jewish experience in Ireland while embracing the universal human need for community and belonging. Gilligan’s literary style is a bit difficult to follow at first but for readers who love metaphor, this book will be just the right thing. The novel moves between multiple cultures and across three different time periods to give a brilliantly cross-sectional account of community, belonging, and choice. Central to each of the three stories are themes of Jewish culture and teachings and the intersection of Jewish and Irish identity.

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