The Tin Horse
By Janice Steinberg
Random House, 325 pages, $31
"EVERY sibling comes from a different family," declares one of the characters in this sweeping, multigenerational novel set in 1920s and '30s Los Angeles.
Somewhat reminiscent of Lisa See's subject matter, this flawed story centres on the abrupt disappearance of a female twin from a Jewish immigrant family.
Steinberg is a San Diego arts journalist. She has written five previous novels featuring a radio reporter and amateur sleuth, Margo Simon, including Death in a City of Mystics. Published in 1998, it tells of an accident involving Margo's mother on a trip to Israel.
At the outset of The Tin Horse, we meet the octogenarian Elaine Greenstein. Once a famous lawyer, she is planning to donate her personal papers to the archives of the local university. While going through her personal effects, Elaine comes upon several boxes from her late mother. Some of the contents jog her memory about what happened just before her twin sister, Barbara, vanished 65 years earlier.
As children, the twins were opposites. Barbara was pretty, vivacious and wild. Elaine was bespectacled, cerebral and shy. Overcome with recollections of Barbara, Elaine must decide whether or not to try to find her one last time.
The title refers to a tin figurine made by the twins' grandfather and given to Barbara as a child.
Told in the voice of Elaine, the first-person narrative is divided into two parts. The majority of the first half is a flashback of the twins' childhood, with every fourth chapter reverting to the present. This section has a feel of a chatty, effusive memoir, whereas the frank, lucid second half morphs into a coming-of-age tale, zeroing in on the twins' rivalries and differing interests.
Throughout the novel, Steinberg manages to evoke subtle differences in Elaine's voice as she ages from a skittish child overshadowed by her twin to a feisty, albeit slightly doddering senior. The novel also contains a wealth of material about the social history of the era and the Boyle Heights neighbourhood.
As well, a vibrant supporting cast enlivens the novel, including the character Phillip Marlowe borrowed from the pages of Raymond Chandler's famous crime novels.
In fact, the brief mention of a female Jewish lawyer in The Big Sleep inspired Steinberg to pattern her novel after such a character.
Yet Elaine's apparently seamless transition from high school to university in 1938 and later to law school raises several questions. For example: Why did her parents approve of her career choice despite their precarious finances a few years earlier? As a female legal student from a minority group, did she experience any prejudice or sexism? And how prevalent were university scholarships for women during the Second World War in an era when they were still encouraged to become teachers, nurses and secretaries?
Steinberg largely skirts these issues. Instead we are inundated with mundane details about Elaine's first day of school, her hapless grandfather and trips to the beach. Not only do these stories bog down the plot, but they may leave some readers champing at the bit.
The Tin Horse provides fresh insights into sibling rivalry. Nevertheless, had the novel focused more on Elaine's career struggles, it would have offered a more satisfying read.
Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.