Fervour by Toby Lloyd, review: An infuriatingly flawed debut novel

The (particularly Jewish) question at the heart of all this is how much we should revisit the past, says Felix Pope


What if your mother resembled Melanie Phillips and your sister were  possessed by a demon? This is the question Toby Lloyd’s intriguing but infuriatingly flawed debut novel tries to answer – via the Holocaust, Oxford University, and a north London family drama.

The Rosenthals are an intellectual and argumentative bunch, who attempt to “mingle Orthodox tradition with a bourgeois appreciation of les beaux arts”. This book opens in perhaps overwhelmingly Jewish fashion with their Zeide, Yosef, on his deathbed, holding his concentration camp tattoo aloft and intoning the importance of god and family to his grandson Tovyah.

The ensuing narrative jumps between episodes of the Rosenthals’ lives (the courtship of parents Eric and Hannah, precocious Tovyah’s first year at Oxford, daughter Elsie’s troubled teenage years), different narrators (sometimes omniscient, sometimes Tovyah’s university friend Kate), and varying textual sources. At one point, Lloyd writes winkingly: “There are no reliable narrators in this house.”

All this postmodern invention can be interesting, but sometimes leaves the reader at a remove from the action. When we hear Yosef’s Shoah account, it is via Hannah’s interview with him for a book, and the narrative is broken up with clunky inserts such as “he explained”.

After his death, the old man’s final wish to be cremated is “simply ignored” and Elsie, carrying around a stone from his graveside, begins to suffer. Her unconventional rebellion involves reading Martin Buber’s Chasidic tales, dating an older stoner, and delving into kabbalistic mysticism. As the nervous young anorexic withdraws further into herself, it becomes unclear, to both her relatives and the reader, whether she is simply mentally ill or possessed by some darker force.

The (particularly Jewish) question at the heart of all this is how much we should revisit the past. Hannah, a fiery newspaper columnist reviled in some quarters for her strident Zionism, causes much pain by examining first Yosef’s Holocaust survival story and later on her own family’s messy history.

Whether picking at those scabs can provide a source of meaning or simply further misery is hotly debated. “Please tell me you haven’t exhumed Zeide all over again,” Tovyah demands on hearing of his mother’s second book. Kate, by contrast, rather pompously declares at one point that, “historical atrocities, like great art, drag us into the light, where there’s no more hiding your moral character.”

Ultimately, Lloyd’s lofty ambitions are let down by weak prose, slightly farcical plot points, and a horrifying but implausible conclusion. (And is any modern Orthodox family really naming their son Tovyah in the 1990s?) Next time, I think I’d rather read one of Mrs Rosenthal’s polemics.

Sceptre, £16.99

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