Tamara Faith Berger’s latest book is an investigation of the Jewish diaspora’s relationship to race and Israel, as well as the ways in which sex can become a form of political expression.
Queen Solomon is a thriller that follows the turmoil in a Canadian-Jewish family after they take in Barbra, an Ethiopian Jew. Narrated by the family’s teenage son, the book explores the ways in which he is both drawn to and terrified by the adolescent Barbra, who is more complicated than she first appears. Nicknamed “Jew-boy” by Barbra, the unnamed narrator is animalistically attracted to her and cognizant of the psychological games she is playing with the family, but perhaps not as self-aware as he might lead himself to believe. Barbra’s presence in the narrator’s life pushes him to re-examine how he understands the world, and question his belief systems and even his sanity.
Barbra’s identity is shaped by her experience of Operation Solomon, a real-life mission in 1991 that transported Jews living in Ethiopia to Israel at the end of the Ethiopian civil war. She was only five years old when her family was airlifted to Israel. While her host father in Canada believes that she should be grateful for the rescue, Barbra, deeply affected by the racism she endured in Israel, doesn’t see the situation as simply. In her view, she was taken as a young girl and raised in a country that she says treated her community “like dogs.” Something went wrong during her mandatory military service, which resulted in her staying in Canada.
The text is extremely graphic, detailing the S&M games Barbra and the narrator play. This gratuity calls to mind the Oscar Wilde quote, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Throughout the novel, Barbra tests the limits of the world she finds herself in; she is a black woman reliant on her host family, yet her age and experience push her companion to feel that she is the one in control, even when she is the one in bondage. Indeed, the narrator even identifies her as his molester. It is through sex that these characters work out their relationship to power, and role-play the positions they have been assigned.
Like Barbra, the narrator’s journey is closely tied to his Jewish identity. His father steadfastly believes that they are not white but Jewish, but the narrator seems to question if this is a fair assessment. Barbra never wavers in her identity, but struggles to make connections with the Jewish community she finds herself in, which has distinctly different practices from her own. The narrator projects onto Barbra an alternative Judaism that works in contrast to the patriarchal version he sees around them.
Through her thoughtfully constructed characters, Berger explores a variety of complex perspectives on Jewish racial identity, as well as the conflicts on the Israel-Palestine border and the nature of self-empowerment. The book spans eight years of the narrator’s life as he travels to Israel from Canada, grappling with his identity and trying to figure out his world. For Berger’s characters, there are neither neat solutions nor endings.