To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Tantalising from the opening pages, Mendelson invites the reader to step into the worlds of Steven, Frances and Eliyahu on a glorious summer’s day in 2014 and journey with them through intertwined seasons of life and love.
On one level this is the story of two worlds colliding, starting with an ordinary encounter in the world of business. Steven is a business and marketing consultant in possession of a keen sense of observation and a finely tuned ability to listen. He is a people person, easy to get to know and people warm to him readily. He also deals in details and his acute business brain trusts the evidence of his senses, what he can see, touch and hear. Steven lives a comfortable life in the city, a family man grateful for the efforts of past generations to forge a better life in Australia for his Jewish community.
Frances is a retail director of a charity organisation run by the Catholic Church and the two meet when a mutual acquaintance proposes Steven’s pro bono input on Frances’ project. Away from work Frances loves to retreat to the tranquility of her country home on the city’s edge which she shares now only with Elijah, her faithful dog. She is content in her own company and is happy to explore her nascent spirituality in the solitude of nature rather than leave her oasis to socialise. Discovering by chance that she is called ‘the Duchess’ by workers at the coal face because of her very proper manner and rather haughty demeanour, Steven suspects that while she presents as a Valkyrie on the outside a slinky, soft pussy cat may be hidden inside. Later, he will discover his expertise in awakening the Empress within who is yearning for release.
Their relationship shifts a gear while working beyond Melbourne on the project, after each reveals a little more about themselves to the other than they had intended.
Phone conversations regarding the project become regular, more relaxed and weekly events during which each gets to know the other better through wide ranging and lengthy conversations. Previously conversation has been used by Frances as a transactional tool, a means to an end, but with Steven she discovers that everything about her is of interest to him. He listens to her, an easy familiarity building between them as they continue to make progress on the project. Frances enjoys the newfound sense of freedom which conversations with Steven unleash in her. Quiescent no more, she begins to blossom, her sense of self enlivened after a long period of dormancy.
Similarly, Frances explores a side of Steven that he had not been fully aware of and which no one else had seemingly been interested in. His life to this point has been lived very much to a formula and within clearly defined rules and boundaries. Conversations and discussions with Frances intrigue and stimulate him. She unearths his spiritual side which has long lain fallow within and through her gentle ministrations Steven awakens to learn more about his deeper self.
While Frances and Steven’s initial business relationship moves hesitantly towards a lovers’ easy intimacy, their passion when eventually unleashed ignites explosively. A subtle tilt in the orbits of these polar-opposites may result in harmony of the spheres but a very real danger exists that they will instead crash and burn, leaving devastation in their wake. The course of their relationship is foreshadowed through conversation and premonition, while visual wordplay and heightened anticipation combine to raise the heart rate of the reader.
Mendelson skillfully portrays their private world, stripping them back to expose vulnerabilities and bare their souls. Frances and Steven share the realisation that we are who we are because of those who went before us, buffeted by the impact of trauma as well as buoyed by joy. The spectres of World War 2 and the Holocaust hang over their pasts, and still cast a long shadow over the lives of the those who have been able to step into the light to ride a wave of optimism and freedom in the Lucky Country.
Autumn recurs as the turning point of sections within the book, a time for stripping bare to reveal the resilient core able to endure the harsh elements of nature. The seasons of life and love rewind and fast forward, the pages of history turn backwards and forwards, time takes its course in the human and the natural world.
Steven and Frances decide to step outside the constraints of courtship and engage in a metaphorical dance drawing inexorably towards a fiery conclusion. The shades which colour their developing relationship are not monochrome but multihued and dazzling in their vitality, yet nuanced by trust and honesty.
The title invites the reader to speculate about who Eliyahu is, why he has a mistress and who she is. On the surface the answer is that her handsome hound, a Cavalier King Charles, is besotted by Frances. Named by her after Mendelssohn’s haunting piece of music Elijah, his name changes after Frances learns more about this biblical figure from Steven and the role his namesake Eliyahu plays in the Passover Seder ritual.
Echoes of the importance of changing a name to signify a change in destiny are buried deep with the religious DNA of both Jews and Christians. In Genesis 17, Abram becomes Abraham and his wife Sarai becomes Sarah, both are destined for life changing events on a grand scale. The biblical Elijah raised the dead, restoring life after all hope was gone – is there to be a renewal of life through the presence of another Elijah in Frances’ previously dormant existence?
Mendelssohn’s Elijah is dramatic and messianic, heralding hope and a beautiful world ahead. In concert with his namesake, Mendelson harmonises the point and counterpoint of Frances and Steven’s individual and shared journeys into a life-affirming story about love, loss and gaining the ultimate prize.
Reviewed March 2017