In her stellar second novel Beyond the Ghetto Gates (She Writes Press, 2020), Michelle Cameron creates a rich, intricate world where her characters grapple with the rules and implications of living under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte and the French army, as well as societal and religious expectations pushed on men and women of the time. Cameron’s portrayals of the complex lives between Jews and Christians in the 1790s is rendered vividly on the page through alternating perspectives: the novel follows Mirelle, born into a Jewish family; Daniel, a Jewish soldier serving in Bonaparte’s army; Christophe, a Christian who falls for Mirelle; and Francesca, a devout Catholic whose allegiance to her religion is tested when her life intersects with Mirelle’s and Daniel’s. Each character harbors misgivings about the others until they begin to unite and understand that the effects of war and violence on their lives have given them bonds that cannot be broken.
Set in Ancona, Italy, the novel opens with Mirelle, a brilliant accountant who longs for a life beyond the gates of the Jewish ghetto she has been raised within: “her brother might feel caught within the enclosure of the gates, but she felt doubly trapped—as a Jew and as a woman.” As the plot progresses, she confronts societal and religious rules of her place in the world with a sharp tongue and a steady head. Her faith and obligation to her family is tested when she falls for a Christian soldier, and their clandestine romance pushes the boundaries and restrictions of each of their lives. Mirelle is a compelling protagonist who gracefully accepts each challenge thrown her way, while other characters orbit around her story to create an engaging narrative.
Cameron leans into the historical elements of the story, rendering events with such strong imagery that the events seem to take place in the current era rather than the 1700s. For example, when Bonaparte is first introduced the troops do not think much of the new general: “The General stood before the men, legs spread wide. He wore a simple jacket, only distinguished by the gold leaf embroidery reserved for generals. He’d left his collar open. Disappointment twisted Daniel’s stomach. Someone in Paris must think the Italian campaign a joke.” Cameron’s descriptions allow real-life historical figures to inhabit their own space in her fictional retelling of true events.
This is a gripping read that is impossible to put down, weaving a story of beauty, heartbreak, romance, and familial bonds that link generations together. Cameron’s characters challenge societal and religious expectations while learning to see past their division to find new common ground in the end—though not before much blood is shed do they realize the implications of the clash between the stereotypes, violence, and religious beliefs they each hold as truth must change if peace is to ever be found. The novel is most successful when it pushes back against the boundaries each character must learn to traverse to truly understand the humanity of their fellow man and woman, and Cameron’s writing is universal in its capacity to bridge the gap between Christian and Jew, Italian and French. Through these empathetic characters and the portrait of their lives, readers will be left satisfied and wanting more.
Nikki Lyssy (@blindnikkii) is an MFA candidate studying creative nonfiction at the University of South Florida. Her essays have appeared in Hobart, Sweet, and Essay Daily. When she is not working, she can be found in a coffee shop.
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