“Paper is White” by Hilary Zaid— The Pull of the Past

Zaid, Hilary. “Paper is White”, Bywater Books, 2018.

The Pull of the Past

Amos Lassen

Whether we realize it or not, the past is always with us and memory is one of the defining human characteristics. In “Paper is White”, writer Hilary Zaid takes us on an exploration of survival, secrets, memory and love through her very fresh and original characters. I was totally involved already by the second page and had to force myself to leave the book to get something to eat. It has been a long time since a book affected me so deeply.

Ellen Margolis is assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory in San Francisco and her job entails recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors before they are all gone forever. That time is coming on us very quickly and what happened during the Holocaust has become part of the psyche of many. Ellen understand about the Holocaust since her parents and grandmother survived that horrible period in human history and she considers herself able to hold her emotions in. However, when she and her girlfriend decide to marry, the ghost of the past decide to pay her a visit. As they move closer to enjoying the benefits of marriage equality, Ellen feels a need to look at the legacy of intergenerational silence and she is drawn into a clandestine entanglement with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor and who seems to have more to hide than to share. Ellen is soon involved in a search for buried history. She decides that if there is to be a wedding, she must realize how much she can share with the woman she loves.

Zaid’s novel is set in the 1990s in the San Francisco of the dot.com era and it looks at the pull of the past and how it affects the present and what we must do in order to feel whole and complete. Like many others, I have been inundated with writing about the Holocaust and had more or less pushed it to the side for the next few years. After all, how many times can we read the same thing over and over. In order to make a book about the Holocaust interesting reading, new approaches must be found in how to deal with it and that is what Hilary Zaid has done here. Her story is inventive and tender and that is just the first of many innovations here. She faces the silences of those who came before her and works her way through them and we are along for the ride. The stories we have heard in the past, haunt us in the present but we ca never allow us to forget about an entire group of people being forced off the face of the earth because of their beliefs. We see how silence can either be just that or a weapon. We also see the importance of love and that it is redemptive. Granted I have been tight-lipped about what happens here but that is deliberate for I do not want anyone to approach this book with ideas in their heads. In approaching the past, we are also approaching life and while the stories may haunt us forever, that is not a bad thing. I was in love with the beauty of the prose here and the freshness of the topic. This is a read that you do not want to miss … and there is wonderful humor here.