Kantika means “song” in Ladino, the language spoken by the richly drawn characters of this sweeping novel. Ladino is to Spanish as Yiddish is to German. And Ladino (or “Latin”) is a Judaeo-Old Spanish language dating from the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain, over 500 years ago. From Spain they traveled mainly to eastern Mediterranean countries like Turkey, where this family-centered story begins in 1907, set in Constantinople (as it was then). In the 20th century, more travel awaits them. Unmoored by poverty and threatening world events, the Cohen family takes refuge first in Barcelona, then Cuba, and finally the United States.
Wherever they go, they carry faith, culture, music, survival skills, and love along with them—especially Rebecca, the engaging main character, whose life we follow through the first half of the 20th century, from her privileged girlhood in Turkey to poverty and discrimination in Spain, followed by a brief romantic interlude in Cuba, and finally ending in middle-class America. Along the way she acquires two husbands and six children.
Graver based Kantika on her own family history, including actual names and photographs that work surprisingly well paired with meticulous research and lyrical prose. She has created fiction that’s satisfyingly anchored in reality. Occasionally we move from Rebecca’s consciousness to that of other family members, including memorable portraits of Rebecca’s father, her oldest son, and her physically challenged and emotionally challenging stepdaughter, Luna. Settings, all beautifully evoked, range from exotic Constantinople and Havana to a modest candy store in Astoria.
Ladino music threads its way through the text and provides a constant, unifying metaphor for the novel: whether sad or joyous, sacred or secular, personal history or fiction, Kantika sings.