The clicks and beeps of cardiac monitors, the labored breathing of children struggling to
survive--these are the sounds of a pediatric intensive care unit. They become the harsh
counterpoint to the poignant melody of parental anguish that structures Fran Dorf's Saving Elijah.
Dinah Rosenberg Galligan's 5-year-old son Elijah (whose young body is a cacophony of neurological
glitches, learning disabilities, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a heart defect, and more) lies in
a coma, and his parents must face the possibility of losing their beloved youngest child:
And how would I survive if every molecule in my body had been corrupted? I'm not sure when the
molecule thing happens, as you carry a child or simply as you mother him, but I was sure that each
of my cell nuclei was unalterably made up of four parts, one part me, one part Kate, one part Alex,
and one part Elijah. If a crucial Elijah-piece of each cell nucleus were suddenly sliced off at the
cellular level, I was certain the missing piece of each cell would defile the whole structure until,
eventually, it crumbled to dust. I could feel edges crumbling already.
But then Dinah hears a mysteriously familiar melody: a version of the lullaby she has always sung
to Elijah. When Dinah tracks it to its source, she sees a ghost. Playing the guitar and perching
on a couch in the ICU waiting room, the ghost--that of the appropriately named Seth Lucien, Dinah's
first lover--both taunts Dinah in her grief and invites her to rescue Elijah from the angel of death.
The novel is essentially a reworking of the archetypal Faustian bargain: to what extent will Dinah go
to save her son? Is the ghost a means of salvation or an instrument of torment? It leads Dinah both
backward and forward in time: she must explore the failings of her past, and tread uncertainly the
various futures that lie before her, some of them truly horrifying.
It will come as no surprise to any parent--or to any reader of Goethe--that Dinah accepts the ghost's
proposition: her son will live, but she must live with the ghost forever within her. Elijah's stunning
recovery from the coma grants him an uncanny ability to understand and empathize with the pain of others.
He alone comprehends his mother's sacrifice as the rest of Dinah's life begins to disintegrate.
Dorf (Flight, A Reasonable Madness) has crafted a moving testament to maternal grief, which is at its
most powerful when Dorf sets forth, in spare and eloquent prose, Dinah's fears, her anxieties, her
crippling sense that she is to blame for Elijah's illness. But when Dorf dwells upon the metaphysics
of the afterlife or veers into lurid descriptions of the ghost's desire to "possess" Dinah, the writer's
eloquence becomes turgid. Luckily, these moments are the exception. Saving Elijah is both delicately
rendered and poignant.