Set in the late 1990s in the Bay Area, Hilary Zaid’s debut novel, Paper Is White, follows Ellen Margolis, assistant curator at the Foundation for the Preservation of Memory, as she navigates the choppy waters of history, kicked up by two very intense and very important personal involvements. The novel opens with an Indian tale in the place of an epigraph, about a woman who knows a story and a song, but refuses to give voice to either. The story and song tire of never being let out, and so betray the woman by shifting shape into men’s shoes and coat, thus provoking her husband’s anger at her unfaithfulness. It’s an apt metaphor for Paper Is White, a book that seeks to give voice to the stories that some would prefer remain unspoken.
Ellen is one of those people for whom ghosts are as real as the living—she is haunted by her late grandmother, and by her past relationships, even by attractions she only lives out in her head—the boundaries between past and present are as flimsy as air for her. The novel twines two stories together: opening the night Ellen and her fiancée, Francine, announce their engagement to Ellen’s best friend, which just so happens to be the night Ellen receives a mysterious phone call from one of the Foundation’s clients, Anya, a cunning and secretive Holocaust survivor with an unusual story to tell. Getting her to tell it, though, proves daunting.
Rules are made to be broken in Paper Is White, and Ellen, who should maintain a professional boundary with Anya, decides instead to follow a long, twisting path into territory where few have ventured. Despite knowing better, Ellen keeps her involvement with Anya a secret, fearing the repercussions from her boss and from Francine. She also, throughout most of the book, keeps her engagement to Francine under wraps, revealing it only when necessary, and often meeting with confusion or negativity, even from those she loves. This is, after all, the decade of DOMA, well before gay marriage had legal clout anywhere in the US. Not to spoil the ending, but once arrived, all the fear, all the worry, has been for naught. Ellen gets her happy ending, as happy as any can be when faced with the reality of a brutal world.
Francine, as the counterfoil to Ellen’s restlessness and seeking, is placid, observant, a model of patience. She’s the rock to Ellen’s water, never wavering. Even when her mother, Betty, up and disappears halfway through the book, Francine holds it together. Ellen, on the other hand, nearly falls apart. The other characters in the book—and there are many—bring levity, philosophy, clues, intrigue, and mystery. There’s a lot going on in Paper Is White, and the multiplicity of voices adds much to the narrative.
Zaid’s book is brave, and original, and does a wonderful job of bringing the 1990s to life. Paper Is White is compelling, and if the characters are occasionally too reticent, there’s a sense that this attitude is integral to the telling of this story. Forgotten histories—whether they are willfully forgotten, repressed, or silenced due to trauma—are subject to much scrutiny here, and who can blame the cast for wanting to hide? Even the bravest among us might turn away from this type of exposure. Betty, before she leaves, poses this to Ellen: “’Do you really think it’s possible…for people to tell the truth about their lives?’” Ellen is shocked by the question, especially given her line of work, but she’s perhaps more vulnerable to the follow up: “’Not to you, dear… To themselves.’” This question might be the driving force of Paper Is White. Ellen’s relentless pursuit of the truth keeps the novel’s pages turning, keeps the reader wondering what else remains in the depths. In the end, Zaid offers a number of insights on what we give words to, and what we consign to the silence of history, making this a memorable (pun fully intended) read.
Paper is White
By Hilary Zaid
Paperback, 9781612941134, 312 pp.