Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Crossing the Threshold
by Katalin Kennedy
Baico Publishing Inc
Paperback, Nov 2019, ISBN: 978-1-77216-194-6, $22.95,263pgs
Crossing the Threshold by Katalin (Andras) Kennedy, will appeal to a wide segment of readers. Experienced European travellers will be drawn to it for the opportunity to revisit locales they remember. Folklore lovers will be attracted by the many stories from various cultures, including such tales as the white stag of Hungarian mythology to the Golem of Prague.
Readers will relate to Sophie Szvaras, a late-thirties professor of mythology from Newfoundland’s Memorial University, who goes on a group tour of Europe as a sentimental journey, as a scholarly trip to learn more about her field, and as a quest for insight into personal issues. As the story progresses, folkloric and archetypal figures appear to her in dreams and lead her to greater self-understanding.
The novel opens with a jarring event, the first of many, an indication that the story will not be a mere travelogue. In London, Sophie is awakened by a fire alarm in the middle of the night, and, outside the hotel, joins her tour-mates, a throng of strangers in their sleepwear. She has hoped for the “serenity of skipping back in time to familiar settings”, but now realizes that so much company in close proximity will be hard to take.
She establishes a cautious rapport with another passenger en route from London to Calais, France and on to Belgium. When she joins the group for dinner at their Brussels hotel, we meet some other tour members. Several stand out: Jake, a boisterous furrier who dominates the conversation: Daria and Kareem, a couple of East Indian background; other duos, and singles, including an outgoing lady in red, and John, a silver-haired Brit with good social skills. Escaping to her room early, Sophie gets out her laptop and writes to her father, who was her companion on their European coach tour twenty years earlier.
When she mentions that “Malcolm” and “Edwin” got in the way of her making this trip, until now, readers are curious. Who are Malcolm and Edwin? Her children? Her spouses? The author drops tantalizing bits of information about them, and about Sophie’s past, but withholds more than she reveals, skilfully building reader tension. When John and Sophie meet in Brussels the next day and have lunch together, the plot thickens. Will the two end up together?
Over lunch Sophie divulges that she hopes to learn more about Europe’s “witte wieven” – wise women herbalists, prophets and medicine healers. The mysterious nature of folklore and legend provides suspense that keeps readers hooked.
At one juncture we learn about Karl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. Sophie feels homesick, though unsure whom or what at she’s missing. She reflects that, “Maybe her homesickness was for some haunt quivering in her DNA, or a past ancestral energy.” A private person by nature, she has cultivated a public persona, “Beatrice” to present to her fellow tourists on the journey. Beatrice wears make-up, speaks freely and is outgoing.
While most of the novel is from Sophie’s point of view (third person subjective), occasionally the story is presented through John’s heart and mind. We learn that he’s there to meet new friends and hear their stories. A retired teacher and Falklands War veteran familiar with Europe, he is also a widower who misses his wife. He feels that he knows Sophie from somewhere, but since she isn’t forthcoming, he has no idea from where.
Some readers may wish for more information about Edwin. At some point we learn that he, like Sophie, is a visiting professor at Memorial University, and that he gave her Billy Joel songs on an MP3 player when she left for her trip. Sophie believes the songs may express the feelings he’s unable to articulate. Not all readers are familiar with Billy Joel’s body of work, though, and it would have been helpful to have references to specific song titles.
Disturbing events and grim historic references throughout the novel add to the dramatic tension. The troubling happenings escalate, starting with the hotel fire alarm, moving to a discussion of the French refugee camp, to Jake’s sudden fatigue and stress at Nuremberg. Nuremberg is one of the many places fraught with negative associations. There, Jews were slaughtered in 1218 and 1349, there the Nazis held their rallies, and, consequently, Nuremberg was chosen by the Allies as the venue for putting Nazi war criminals on trial.
Europe’s history of oppression under absolute monarchy, fascism, Naziism and communism comes through to the travellers, though their tour guide tries to play it down. They discuss the troubled history of the places they’ve seen, bringing to the conversation their personal experiences of war, genocide and poverty in many parts of the world. Awareness of evil deeds, past and present, is important in Crossing the Threshold. Through the characters, the author conveys some ideas about how not to repeat the crimes of history and how to work toward a more harmonious world. Several characters are struggling with what they experienced earlier in life. Most of them are people of goodwill and understanding.
In addition to the major characters, Sophie and John, there are sixteen supporting actors who appear fairly regularly at the discussions and express their opinions, usually progressive ones. Distinguishing one from another and staying engaged in their stories is a challenge. Some novelists who write about foreign locales focus upon a limited number of leading characters, making them what E.M. Forster called “round” ; that is, people with fully developed personalities. In Nights of Rain and Stars, Maeve Binchy created four complicated co-protagonists, strangers to each other, whose lives are changed by their chance meeting in a Greek seaside village. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, about a female scientist on a mission to the Brazilian jungle, has just five fully rounded principal characters.
Crossing the Threshold educates readers and keeps them on their toes. The ending, open yet satisfying, brings some sad surprises, but also an important epiphany, when Sophie finally recognizes the wise women she’d hoped to meet on her journey.
To write a novel so replete with historical and geographic information requires both research ability and personal experience. Author Katalin Kennedy, a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa, is a Canadian of Hungarian background who took many coach tours with her husband over a forty year period, seeing much of Britain and continental Europe. She says in her acknowledgements that “the people, the cultures, the learning were all exhilarating” and that at some point she realized that she could write a novel with a guided tour as the setting. The purely fictional characters and plot of Crossing the Threshold demonstrate her storytelling talent.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest novel is Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019, ISBN 978-1-77216-191-5, $32) about the Manitoba women’s suffrage movement and World War I. For more information about her books, visit http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com or http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com