By Stephen Kitsakos – Rose Strongin is a woman with a secret so deep even she doesn’t know what it is. Worse, it’s the kind of secret that’s contrary to her way of understanding the world, honed throughout her training and career as a research scientist. This secret involves something that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Or did it?
In the mid-1970s, early in her career, Rose has the exciting opportunity to travel to Israel with her husband and daughters on a project near where the biblical town of Dalmanoutha is believed to have stood. (In this regard, Kitsakos’s fictional account mirrors real-life archaeological discoveries.) Dalmanoutha is the village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee where, the Bible has it, Jesus fed the multitudes with a few fishes and loaves of bread. When Rose first meets the magnetic director of the research project, Dr. Noah Chazon, an unexpected chemistry ignites between them.
On the day Rose and her family are to return home to Toronto, Rose disappears. Despite diligent searching by everyone involved in the project, Rose cannot be found for several hours, and the family misses its flight. Unaccountably, Rose says she cannot remember where she was or what she was doing. Her husband Simon, aware of Rose and Chazon’s mutual interest, suspects the worst, and in the ensuing years Chazon’s reappearances are a sore spot in the couple’s marriage.
Still, for Rose, the interlude on the beach remain a blank: “Time had stood still for her and all she could recall was walking down the long slate path . . . as if she had walked into a cloud and come out the other side, three hours later.” In her hand was a mysterious piece of wood.
This vagueness is uncharacteristic of Rose and, in itself, raises questions. But whatever happened, it saves the family, as the flight they would have taken crashes into the sea, and all aboard are lost. Was Rose’s disappearance a form of premonition? Rose is not the only person to have had such an experience in that place. And each such revelation deepens the mystery, as do the shards of Rose’s own experience that come back to her in brief flashes of recognition and understanding many years later.
Much of the novel is told in near-distant flashbacks, but it opens in the current day, in Israel, with Simon, his two daughters, and the son conceived the night the family unexpectedly missed their plane. They are gathered to fulfill Rose’s last wishes, including that her ashes be scattered on the Sea of Galilee at the place where she disappeared thirty years before. Through the memories these actions stir, the reader gains an understanding of Simon and Rose and their marriage, Rose’s relationship with Noah Chazon, and how three missing hours affected everything that followed. I had the chance to ask Stephen Kitsakos about the novel’s structure, and he said that, although he wrote the book in fragments, eventually, the family’s return trip to Israel with Rose’s ashes became the spine of the story, connecting all the parts and keeping it moving forward.
At its heart, the book contains a number of mysteries that can be interpreted in different ways—metaphorically, literally, or spiritually—which gives the reader much to think about and can make for a lively book group discussion! To me, the strong underlying message is about the enduring power of love, though Kitsakos put this thought much more elegantly in response to my question about message: “The greatest mystery of all is what connects us to our ancestors, ourselves, and each other,” he said.
Kitsakos is a theater writer and journalist and has written the librettos for three operas, including an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. His talent at setting a dramatic scene and creating compelling characters is put to good use in this intriguing novel.