David Grossman’s book, set in Israel between 1967 and 2000, works on many levels: anti-war book; story about relationships (male/female; parent/child; siblings); an ode to the beauty of the Israeli landscape.
The story is told from the point of view of Ora, wife of Ilan, mother of two boys, Adam and Ofer, and friend/lover to Avram. Yes, Ora is described in other ways but her relationships to these four men are the essence of the book. Motherhood is the central fact of her life. Grossman conveys the joy and pain that is part of having children anywhere, and also the constant fear that goes with being a parent in a perpetual war zone. When Ofer volunteers for an additional twenty-eight day tour of duty after he has completed his normal period of military service, it is the fear that the “notifiers” will come to give her terrible news that causes Ora to decide to go on an extended hike along the Israel Trail. If she is not at home, she cannot receive the news and somehow in her mind the worst cannot happen.
Ora takes as her travelling companion the book’s most fascinating character, Avram, teenage friend of Ora and Ilan, sometime lover of Ora, and father of Ofer. In his earlier life, Avram is an artist with a brilliant, offbeat mind and a way with language and ideas that is a constant delight. His history includes a period of torture and near-death as a prisoner of war. The grim details of his torture define inhumanity and have permanently damaged him.
As they walk, Ora tells Avram about the life of his son, Ofer, whom he has never known. She tells him about the birth, about the early years, and his adolescence. She also tells him about her other son, Adam, and about her life with Ilan (from whom she is now estranged). At the beginning, Avram is inarticulate, willing to walk but not keen on talking. But Ora persists in telling him about Ofer and eventually she breaks through Avram’s protective shell and he participates.
The centre of the book is about the long, rambling walk when Ora tells Avram the smallest details about Ofer’s childhood, slowly building up a picture of a life.
A shadow falls on them at midday. They are walking through the Tsivon streambed, a deep, strange channel that silences them. The path meanders among large, broken rocks, and they must climb and take calculated steps. The oak trees around them are forced to grow tall, stretch higher and higher to reach the sunlight. Pale ivy and long ferns cascade down from the treetops. They walk over a bed of crumbling dry leaves among bloodless cyclamens and albino fungi.
… Suddenly, as if a hand has passed in front of their faces, they walk out of the shade and into the sunlight. Another few moments and a meadow is revealed, and a hillside, and orchards blossoming in white.
… She tells him about Ofer’s journeys of discovery through the house, his insistent examinations of every single book on the bottom shelves, the plant leaves, the pots and lids in the lower kitchen drawers. She gives him every memory chip of his babyhood that pops into her mind. When he fell off a chair and had to get seven stitches in his chin at Magen David; when a cat scratched his face at the playground — “there’s no scar,” she says reassuringly, and Avram snatches a fluttering touch of some of his own scars, on his arms, shoulder, chest and back, and a surprising ripple of joy runs through him because Ofer is whole; his body is whole.
Ora doesn’t make her life sound romantic. As young adults, the boys inevitably pull away, but there are moments of joy. She describes a family outing to a restaurant, in which the petty irritants any family faces in its day-to-day life are momentarily suspended:
So after we sit down comes the ordering, with Adam’s performances. The waitress always marks him straightaway as problematic, an obstacle in the rhythmic flow of her execution because of his pedantic instructions — nothing with cream in it; can it be fried in butter? Do any of the dips, God forbid, contain eggplant or avocado, in any form?… And then there’s Ora’s heroic struggle with her own eye, which keeps veering to the prices.
… She is always the one who feebly suggests: “Why don’t we just order three entrées? We never finish everything anyway.” And they argue with her, always, as though her proposal contains a veiled slight of their appetites, even their masculinity.
… She knows everything will be fine soon, even good … Soon the jokes will come, and the giggles and the waves of affection. In just a short while she’ll be able to splash around in the warm, sweet latency that commingles — “for such rare moments; far rarer than you might imagine” — complete happiness and family.
Ora is not a character who is easy to like. She makes errors, some of them with devastating consequences but she is not an idealized creation: she is just another human being. She finally drives Adam away from her emotionally because she is unable to leave Ofer alone after he makes a mistake with serious consequences:
Ora bit her lip. Mustering up all the restraint she could find within herself, she said, “Still, Dvir, I can’t understand how a bunch of guys—”
“Mom!” Ofer yelled. A single yell that cut like a knife. They drove the rest of the way in silence. When they got to HQ, Ofer wouldn’t let her wait for him to hear the results of the preliminary inquiry, as she had intended to do. “You’re going home now,” he announced.
Ora looked at him, at her strong child with the shaved head and the pure gaze, and her eyes brimmed with tears. The question almost burst out again, and Ofer said in a terrifyingly quiet voice, “Mom, listen closely. This is the last time I’m going to tell you. Get off my case. Get off my case!”
… Ora shrank back from his power, his hardness, and above all his foreignness, and he turned his back on her and left without letting her kiss him.
It is in Ora’s deep love for her boys, the fact of her being caught up in a life only partly subject to her control, and in her guilt and worry over mistakes made that she is easiest to identify with.
At times the book seems to have too many layers and to be circuitous, like the journey is at times. The meandering walk in the middle section goes on too long. There are hints about significant aspects of the story that are only explained late in the book. But the tension of living in Israel with the constant fear of terrorism is starkly realistic. Anyone who loves another person will recognize fearing for their safety. Parents in particular will know the contrast between the young child who is totally dependent and the adult son who makes his own choices; they will understand the piercing poignancy of having to let go.
David Grossman began to write this book before his own son, Uri, was killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War. After mourning his son, he went back and completed the novel. He continues his work as a peace activist.