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When, If not Now? - Book Review

When, If Not Now?
by Jacqueline J. Shulman 
Reviewed by Marian Lebor

Two years ago, as the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic reached our shores and Israel went into lockdown, we all suddenly had to adapt to a different way of life. The day was long and the endless hours at home were filled with activities such as virtual exercise classes, Zoom lessons, Netflix series, jigsaw puzzles and bread-making. That was all well and good for the daytime. But what of the night hours during lockdown, when those of us who can only dream of a good night's sleep were awake, alert and wondering what to do with ourselves? For Jacqueline J. Shulman, who is typically awake for around two hours in the middle of every night, that extra time unleashed a burst of creative writing that has culminated in the publication of When, if not Now?, her impressive first novel.

At first, Jackie (as she is universally known) would lay awake thinking about holidays she had taken in the past with her husband, David. "I guess it was because travelling was now out of the question that I thought about all the places we had visited and the wonderful memories I had from those holidays," she says. "This expanded to inventing different characters in various scenarios. The following morning, I would research more details and type it all up."

The book took shape as Jackie invented her two main characters: Josh Green, a well-respected member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in northwest London, and Alistair Sylvester, a cultured, charming, gay British expat. The book opens in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Shanghai, where we are immediately introduced to the two men, who meet by chance in the bar and who each have a complicated back story. From Shanghai, they journey together through China and on to other parts of the world as they attempt to solve their respective mysteries.

Josh's story was inspired by a possibly apocryphal one told to Jackie by a former colleague she worked with many years ago. "He was a secular man who lived in Bnei Brak," she recalls. "He told me how once a year he would go on holiday with a Haredi neighbor to a remote destination abroad. As soon as they arrived, the Haredi man changed out of his shtreimel and long black coat into a T-shirt and shorts. The two men would then spend a decadent week of wine, women and song. Then the Haredi man would don his usual apparel and go back to Bnei Brak and his normal daily life. I didn't really believe it at the time, but when I started to write, I realized it was a good story."

Josh Green does indeed have a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction parallel persona to that of the upright pillar of the community that everyone believes him to be. His wife, five children and 19 grandchildren have no idea that for five years while commuting to and from Israel each week to work in a law office in Tel Aviv, he lived in Rishon Lezion with Yang, a beautiful young Chinese woman whom he had met at work, and with whom he has fallen deeply in love. During those years, he would return home to London for the weekends and revert to his usual Haredi existence. One day in 2009, Yang suddenly disappears, leaving just a brief note. Josh returns permanently to the UK soon after, and the book begins ten years later, when he decides to go to China and search for Yang and find out why she left so suddenly. He hopes that he will then find closure and be able to bury the memories of her once and for all.

Alistair, the story's other protagonist, is in China to begin the search for a prized, rare Chinese inside-painted snuff bottle that has disappeared mysteriously from his collection. What follows is essentially a road movie – but in a book form. Two unlikely compatriots embark on an eventful trip from one place to another, learning about each other and about themselves along the way, and every part of the journey tells the reader more about each character. Since many of us might never get to Shanghai, Calgary or any of the other destinations so well described in the book, especially in today's travel-restrictive world, it is fascinating to read about each place as it is artfully wound into the plot. It is clear from her writing that Jackie is both well-read and well-travelled.

Jacqueline Shulman (left) handing a check from profits of her book, to ESRA Vice Chair, Glenis Bertfield

Jackie hadn't set out to write a book during those first nocturnal musings. But she found the characters becoming increasingly real to her and quite soon she had written 55,000 words – enough to consider self-publishing, which she did through Amazon. "It was a very positive experience and I recommend it to other budding writers."

She is now working on a sequel. Without giving any spoilers, I can say that I'm looking forward to finding out more about Josh and Alistair, together with some of the more peripheral characters we are introduced to in this book.

The book is available on Amazon. A paperback edition can be purchased directly from Jackie Shulman:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 052 487 8706. Profits from the sales of When, if not Now? will benefit ESRA projects. 

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