Tamar Yellin is an excellent short story writer who was Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes” references the ten lost tribes of Israel: Reuben; Simeon; Dan; Naphtali; Gad; Asher; Issachar; Zebulun; Ephraim; and Manasseh. Each chapter is entitled one of the lost tribes and is prefaced by quotations about one or more of the tribes, from the Bible or theological studies about the lost tribes. Apart from this Jewish theme, these integrated biographical short stories about the fictional narrator are universal. They embrace the psychologically displaced, culturally foreign and mentally isolated. The first story, Reuben, begins with the narrator as a boy. He is influenced by his uncle, a globetrotter in stories, but in reality an impoverished, sedentary man, whose life is financed by the narrator’s father. In Simeon, the narrator, still a boy, is on a low-cost voyage on an unscrupulous steam line that has a history of losing ships in the Mediterranean. The globetrotter here is Nikos, the sympathetic steward who tries to look after the passengers. Dan is about the narrator’s father, who squandered his money to buy the perfect book for his collection, and the entrepreneurial bookseller, who is more than willing to accommodate him. In Naphtali, the narrator tries to impress his uncompromising but fragile linguistic professor himself in search of the lost language of his parents. Gad is about the narrator’s black-sheep aunt who never had the nerve to leave. In Asher, the narrator tries to befriend an isolated elderly neighbor who is waiting for the Messiah. In Issachar, the transient narrator, now a professor, has a relationship with his student, whose unmemorable physical characteristics leaves her beyond recognition. In Zebulun, he is a caretaker of an elderly wealthy man, who is a prisoner in his own surroundings. In Eprhraim, he runs across a former student whose goal of having his perfect book published is realized in a local bookstore of a small town. In Manassas, he has journeyed downstream with his African guide in search of a person never seen, but who is legendary. It is the summation of the earlier stories and raises the question whether the lost tribes were not lost, but depleted in number and in memory.
My feeling after reading this book is that the author may be trapped in the genre where she has found success. The preface to each chapter and the title of the book enables her to keep her audience, but the writing has the broader appeal she could have. You might find it so.