TO THE END OF THE LAND by David Grossman

Book Quote:

“As she talks, she distractedly quickens her pace, pulled along by the living memory — Ofer on the beach, a bold puppy bristling with the future, she behind him, hiding at times, although there was no need because he never turned to look back. She wondered how far he would go, and he answered her with his steps: forever. She saw […] how the day would come when he would leave her, just get up and go, as they always do, and she guessed a little of what she would feel on that day, a little of what now, without any warning, digs its predatory teeth into her.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (SEP 21, 2010)

This is Ora, a fiftyish Israeli woman, thinking about her younger son, Ofer, who has not merely left home, but done so in a way that fills her with fear. On the day of his discharge from military service, when he is already on leave at home, he volunteers to join the forces fighting some unspecified action in Southern Lebanon, signing up for a further month. Terrified that at any moment a notification team will turn up at her house to inform her of Ofer’s death, Ora flees to the Galilee mountains, beyond the reach of any news. As her husband Ilan has left her several months before, taking with him their eldest son, Ora is all alone. On impulse, she calls on Avram, a former lover who has fallen on hard times, seeking his company, his listening ear, and perhaps his restoration to mental and physical health, along with her own. The whole novel is essentially her “Month of Magical Thinking,” in which the past combines with the present, folding her personal history and that of her country into an almost mystical union.

It would be magnificent if the book were not so confoundedly long; even so, there is a lot in it I can praise. I was impressed, for instance, by the phantasmagorical prologue, in which Ora, Avram, and Ilan, sick with high fever in the wake of some epidemic, meet each other in night-time visits to each other’s wards in a darkened Jerusalem hospital that has been almost evacuated in anticipation of casualties from the 1967 Six Day War. The bonds forged between the three of them will last a lifetime. I was impressed at first, too, by the immediacy and tension of the story when it jumps ahead to 2000. As Ora has lost her license, she is forced to ask their Palestinian driver Sami take her and Ofer to the army rendezvous point, a strangely insensitive mission to ask an Arab to undertake. But Grossman himself is not insensitive, balancing this extraordinary event against a long background of apparent friendship between Ora’s family and Sami, who in turn exacts his own price, leading to a fascinating glimpse of Palestinian culture in the Israeli underbelly, a scene that directly reflects the nightmare mood of the novel’s prelude. After so much polemical writing set in the Middle East, this political frankness was heartening; Grossman is clearly a writer whom one can trust.

But this too is only prelude. It is not until page 116 that the main part of the novel begins, when Ora and Avram arrive in the Galilee. Now we begin to look back as much as forward. Avram’s connections with Ilan, Ora and her children will be explained gradually over the course of the next 460 pages, if the reader can be persuaded to ignore the many other reviews that will certainly give the key facts away. In a narrative that seemingly occupies three or four different time-frames at once, we will learn of Avram’s traumatic experiences during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the testing of the close bonds between him and Ilan, and the strains in Ora’s marriage, caused in part by his presence offstage. We will also learn — at length — of Ofer’s childhood; it seems that Ora’s prime motive in this hike is to talk about her son (even at one point digging a pit and screaming into the belly of the earth), in the shadow of her fear for his death. Even as we follow Ora and Avram in their hike through wild and beautiful country, their trail is dotted with memorials to Israeli soldiers killed in defence of their land, exactly the kind of memento mori that Ora is hoping to avoid.

Were these elements in better balance, the book might be superb. But Ora’s magical thinking dominates all; it is almost though she is exorcising a premature grief. Imagine a mother going through every picture in every family album, and telling you exactly what her child was doing when it was taken, the clever things he said, the phases he went through, the small worries he caused. The obsessive detail is excruciating. When Grossman describes the actual hike, he can be superb; there are marvelous incidents such as a meeting with a peripatetic messiah of mirth, or a terrifying encounter with a pack of wild dogs, but these are too few and far between. My interest picked up towards the end, which describes the desperate fighting in Sinai just before the change of fortunes in the Yom Kippur War. And on an almost metaphorical level, Grossman offers an insight into Israeli psychology that strikes me as being deeply authentic. But when everything has to be filtered through the mind of a warm but obsessive and often hallucinating woman, it can be hard going to get there — though the very ending is grace itself. (Translated by Jessica Cohen.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 129 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (September 21, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on David Grossman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another Israeli woman tells her story:



September 21, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Israel, Middle East, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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