By Katharine Weber
Farrar Straus Giroux. 242 pp. $23
Katharine Weber's fourth novel, Triangle , begins in the voice of Esther Gottesfeld, who recalls her escape from the devastating Triangle Waist Company fire of 1911 in New York City, in which 146 workers died, including her sister Pauline. "This is what happened. I was working at my machine, with only a few minutes left before the end of the day, I remember so clearly. . . ." Many of the sweatshop workers were burned as their bodies piled up beside a locked exit, or on a mangled fire escape that dangled high above the ground, or in an elevator shaft, or before horrified witnesses below, who stood helpless while victims leapt to their deaths from ninth-floor windows. It is a gripping first chapter, at the end of which the story takes its first twist.
The first chapter turns out to be a pamphlet, a transcribed recollection published by the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union in 1961. (Weber has a personal interest in the factory; her paternal grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Company in 1909, but left prior to the time of the fire.) Weber provides this backdrop of tragic, real events against which to set her fiction. The fire stands as a pivotal moment in both New York City and state political and labor union history.
Set in contemporary times, the book has three main characters and is divided into three parts. Thus begins the triangle. Rebecca Gottesfeld, a geneticist, is a counselor in Clinical Genetics; her partner, George Botkin, is an eccentric and brilliantly talented composer; Esther, Rebecca's beloved grandmother, lives in a nursing home and at 106 is nearing the end of her life. Esther is the last living survivor of the notorious fire and, not surprisingly, researchers and historians have contacted her over the years asking her to tell and retell her story. But she has secrets that she will not reveal. Is it failing memory that accounts for conflicting details? We are forced to consider how history is created.
Through the introduction of a fourth person, Ruth Zion, a feminist historian who acts in a rather deus ex machina role, questions about Esther's past come to the attention of Rebecca and George. Ruth strides, brazenly and uninvited, into people's lives and comes across as a bit of a caricature, even though her information is vital to the unfolding of the story. What really happened at the time of the conflagration? What was Esther's role during the infamous trial held after the fire? What was her relationship with the owners, who were eventually acquitted? A mystery is woven around these questions.
Weber relies on newspaper reports and interview transcriptions for entire chapters, and in this way she varies the telling. Information comes at us in a way that is fittingly reminiscent of factory piecework: history, perceived history, present day, past, back to present again. There are surprises, and the reader is led to an understanding of these before George and Rebecca -- who, after her grandmother's death, is the last to put the clues together. In some ways the book is written symphonically, with themes varied and reiterated. In fact, so much weight is placed on George as musician and composer that he threatens to take over the main story. He becomes more interesting than Rebecca, although they complement each other in the very best ways.
Triangle is an enticing read, but its structure constantly intrudes. The ending, however, is grand and moving -- an inventive finale. George composes the Triangle Oratorio, and the chapter written around the Oratorio involves the reader most fully. The last hanging threads are gathered; the seams dissolve. We feel we must grieve. Esther's life is honored, as are the lives of the factory workers who perished almost a hundred years ago. Fact and fiction merge. It is interesting that the art of music ends up fleshing out the triangle. ·
Frances Itani's novel "Deafening" won a Commonwealth Award and was shortlisted for the 2005 IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award.