A novel about psychosis, or spirits, or exploitation. But definitely about family

A man smiles with arms crossed.
Toby Lloyd, author of “Fervor.”
(Suzie Howell)

Book Review


By Toby Lloyd
Avid Reader Press: 288 pages, $28
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Jewish people like me love to ruefully say that where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. Toby Lloyd’s debut novel, “Fervor,” which focuses on a Jewish family’s disintegration over the course of a decade or so, certainly aligns with that phrase; there are, indeed, far more opinions and interpretations bouncing around it than seems possible.

Cover of "Fervor"
(Simon & Schuster)

In the opening chapter, it’s 1999, and the Rosenthals — Eric and Hannah and their three children, Gideon, Elsie and Tovyah — are facing the imminent death of Eric’s father, Yosef, a Holocaust survivor who for the last decade has lived in the stately family home’s attic in London. Each of the children is sent up to speak to Yosef in his final hours, and each receives some sort of wisdom — or warning. Gideon is told he will move to Israel one day (he does); Elsie is told that she hears the voice of God (she might); and Tovyah is told: “Watch out for Elsie. And Gideon. The second son protects the others, yes? He carries the torch.” Tovyah, as the youngest child, is perplexed, and a careful reader might be too. Does “watch out for” mean “take care of”? Or does it mean “beware”? Are the “others” Tovyah’s siblings, or could they be his parents? Even from the first chapter we’re already in tricky waters.

In the months following Yosef’s death, Elsie’s behavior appears to change. First in small, innocuous ways, like spending more time alone in her room, carrying a stone from Yosef’s graveside around with her, and scaring her friends and teachers with violent stories adapted from the Hebrew Bible. Hannah isn’t too worried about her daughter acting out because Elsie is, after all, 14. Later, though, Elsie runs away, and when she’s returned by the police, four days later, she won’t tell anyone where she’s been or what she’s been up to. From then on, things get worse, but it takes some time for us to learn exactly how.

Elsie isn’t really the novel’s main character; if “Fervor” has one, it is Tovyah, her younger brother, although like Elsie, we learn about him only from a narrative distance. After the opening few chapters, the novel takes readers to 2008, when Tovyah starts attending Oxford University and meets his neighbor Kate, who has recently discovered her Jewish heritage and is taking an interest in it. Kate narrates much of the novel, and it’s largely through her eyes that we learn more about the Rosenthals and what they’ve been through in the years since Elsie first disappeared.


As Kate courts Tovyah’s friendship and good opinion, she discovers that he’s no longer Orthodox like his parents and is, in fact, deeply critical of them and how they’ve handled his sister’s difficulties over the years. He’s also become a cynical, prickly and often snobbish intellectual, all of which Kate is drawn to almost despite herself. Covertly, Kate begins to investigate why Tovyah’s mother, Hannah, a journalist-turned-op-ed columnist and memoirist, is so well-known and reviled at the university, and learns that it’s largely because of her stridently Zionist politics. But Hannah is also known for her memoir about her father-in-law, Yosef, in which she shares the horror stories of his past in Treblinka — which neither her husband nor Yosef himself wanted her to expose.

Things come to a head when the pre-publication press attention for Hannah’s new book reveals that it’s about Elsie, who has spent years in and out of psychiatric institutions, and Hannah’s conviction that Elsie has been possessed or has practiced various dark magics — a strange concept for an Orthodox woman to cling to, especially one who knows little about Jewish mystic traditions.

While the plotlines in “Fervor” unfold somewhat messily, Lloyd’s prose is crisp and flowing, and the book’s structure raises questions about its own reliability that only add to the uneasy mood it’s steeped in. The novel moves between omniscient chapters and those in first person narrated by Kate, and both occasionally include text from Hannah’s memoirs. Kate is referred to by name only once within the omniscient chapters, though, which made me wonder whether any of the novel is actually omniscient — and thus presumably reliable — or whether the whole thing is really narrated by Kate, whose fascination with the Rosenthals and their dysfunction grows over time; it’s easy to picture her, years after the events of the book, trying to piece together how things might have gone in that family, imagining her way into their story and writing about it with unearned authority.

The novel’s central tension purports to be what actually happened, and is still happening, to Elsie. Each of the Rosenthals, including Elsie herself, has their own interpretation. But the story’s true core is about the nature of meaning-making itself. How does faith affect how we understand the world? How does rationalism? And how much do we trust the evidence of our own senses when they don’t fall within our sensical understanding of the world?

Tovyah, for instance, is convinced that his mother is unduly ambitious, sensationalizing her daughter’s mental illness for literary gain. He sees Elsie’s fixation on Yosef and the spirit world as symptoms of her psychosis. Yet in his childhood, before Yosef’s death, Tovyah saw someone in Elsie’s room who shouldn’t have been there, who we later learn has been dead for decades. How does Tovyah explain this to himself? He can’t, and so doesn’t.

“Fervor” is a puzzling but gripping novel. It leaves plenty of questions unanswered, which is no doubt frustrating to some readers, but which I found enjoyable — and very Jewish.


Ilana Masad is a books and culture critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”