by Ryan Stromquist
Tiny Lights for Travellers
Naomi K. Lewis
University of Alberta Press (2019)
Naomi Lewis’ memoir, Tiny Lights for Travellers, begins with an epigraph from Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel: [a]nd I wondered, with mounting anxiety, what I was to do here, what I was to think (1). Anxiety over physical, spiritual, and the familial space in the universe is the crux of the memoir as it follows Lewis while she travels from Canada to Europe to take the same path as her Jewish grandfather (Opa) once did while escaping from a Nazi occupied Netherlands:
And by spring, I wondered what Oma would think of the fierce longing that had come over me to get as far from Calgary and the condo as I could, to take Opa’s journal and his map, and to follow it. (17)
Throughout the memoir, Lewis highlights her complex relationship with her Jewish roots and the generational trauma from
the holocaust. The complexities of this relationship are compounded by Lewis’ mostly secular parents, the death of her grandfather, and the ongoing crumbling of her marriage to her much more conservative Jewish husband. The memoir avoids melodrama and treats much of the subject matter with a muted intensity that speaks to the confident and difficult insights. Thinking back on the scenes that were personally compelling, I can’t shake the conceit of Lewis’ nose which is juxtaposed against a personal physical shame and a societal spiritual (and often sexist) shame:
By the time I was fourteen, and Mimi offered me a nose job as my next birthday present, I said yes. It was all I thought about. A non-ugly future. The idea of surgery terrified me, but how could I turn down this offer, for life to be infinitely better? (100)
This theme of hiding away one part of who we are (and the consequences therein) is beautifully explored in various parts of the memoir. Lewis’ nose is one aspect of this, but this theme is brought up time and time again with smaller inconsequential details and much more consequential details such as the generational trauma associated with the holocaust.
Lewis is an affecting writer, and her body of work shows a meticulous attention to craft. This memoir stands with the quality of much of her previous writing. Graceful and crass; humorous and darkly serious; and insightful while obvious, Tiny Lights for Travellers is immersive enough as to have a voyeuristic effect, which makes for the very best of memoirs.
Ryan Stromquist is a writer and editor based out of Calgary, Alberta. He is a longtime volunteer and contributor for FreeFall Magazine.