While there were things I didn’t like about this book, particularly at the beginning, I have to join the chorus of praise for it. This is one of the most deeply moving books I’ve ever read and it has stayed with me long after I closed the cover.
Ora and her damaged friend, Avram, are walking the length of the country. She’d meant to go with her son, Ofer, but he’s volunteered to continue his military service for one more month so he can participate in a big operation. In her fear for him, Ofer resorts to magical thinking: if she’s not home to be notified, then he cannot be harmed. During the walk, she reconstructs Ofer’s life for Avram who has never met him and knows nothing about him. Ora’s husband, Ilan, has left her and to make matters worse their older son, Adam, has chosen to go with him.
Some people in one of my online reading groups so detest prologues that they refuse to read a book with a prologue. I can see their point, as I’ve mentioned before here and here. This novel almost pushed me into the never-read-a-book-with-a-prologue camp. 47 pages long, the prologue took me over a month to read because I kept putting the book down in frustration. Normal punctuation is missing, as are dialogue tags (he said, she said), sending me backtracking to try to figure out who is speaking. Most frustrating, though, is the lack of clarity about the characters, the situation, and the world they live in.
Three teenagers—Ora, Avram, and Ilan—are alone in a hospital during a war. I admit that I misunderstood when and where we were through almost the whole prologue. The characters seemed flat, almost caricatures, and their speech and interactions surreal. The only thing that kept me going was Deborah's strong recommendation. Once the story finally began—a straight-forward, realistic story set in the present-day with dialogue tags and punctuation—it did capture and hold my interest.
This is a book about connection: between mother and son, husband and wife, brothers, friends. It is also about the connection between people and their land, the physical land itself and their country. The writing really brought home to me what it feels like to live in a country as tenuous as Israel. Avram says, ” ‘I don’t think the Americans or the French have to believe so hard all the time just to make America exist. Or France.'” But of all the connections, it is the one to the child that goes deepest. Ora tries to convey to Avram the entirety of Ofer’s life, which of course includes her life and Ilan’s and Adam’s and what they all mean to each other, in the process drawing Avram into the family.
Although I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape, the mountains and rocks and flowers, I suffered through the wrenching emotions. This is not an easy book to read. I found myself shrinking from picking it up, not sure I had the emotional stamina for another bout. But Grossman varies the pace well, with the many jumps in time expertly handled. From a writer's point of view, I recommend this book as a textbook on how to employ flashbacks. From a reader's point of view, I cannot recommend the book highly enough as an experience that will leave you with a deeper understanding of what it means to live in this world.
I respect the experience Grossman brings to this book. Much of the writing here is profoundly moving, conveying the emotional journey that is so much harder than any physical journey. I especially appreciate the way he captures the special relationship Israelis have with their land, so much more immediate, intense and conflicted than other citizens have with their own countries. But in the end, it is the parent’s story. I know these fears and the bargains you make with the future, the self-doubt and guilt, the adoration and the letting go. No other fiction I’ve read comes close to capturing as this book does what it means to be a parent.