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Love, Loss and Family
on 17 October 2010
The fact that is known before you start this novel is that David Grossman's own son was killed fighting in the Israeli army during the writing of it. It is hard to imagine how he endured such personal pain and still managed to write about matters very close to that loss, and so it is important to judge the novel in its own right, rather than through the prism of this tragedy, even though this loss very probably changed it's structure and narrative immensely.
The novel is in part a love triangle between three people. We are introduced to them as children in an isolation hospital in Israel. The girl, Ora, is understandably scared to be in such a lonely place, and is befriended by the charming and sociable Avram. He introduces her to his altogether more withdrawn friend Ilan, but surprisingly it is Ilan that Ora subsequently marries and raises a family with.
The context of the novel, takes place when the three have grown up and faced many challenges, both personal and national, and Ora's youngest son Ofer is about to rejoin the Israeli army, having voluntarily put his name forward for extended service after the period of his conscription is over. The act is seen by his mother as one of defiance and total stupidity. She cannot bear to wait at home and wonder when a knock at the door will bring news of his demise, her husband and eldest son, Adam, having left her, and so she embarks on a journey to escape the bad news she dreads will inevitably come.
She undertakes a journey from her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel to Galilee, and takes a very reluctant Avram, whom she has not seen for a long time, along with her almost against his will. And it is via the device of Ora recounting her story, and that of her family, to Avram that the novel unfolds. Grossman has tremendous descriptive powers. He uses flashback to reveal some stunning truths about what really happened in the depths of her family, and between the triangle of Avram, herself and Ilan.
She reveals what Avram has always suspected but never dared to confront, that Ofer is really his son, even though he was raised by Ilan. The way that Avram shifts gradually along the walk from a position of not wanting to hear any details about him, and even refusing to engage in conversation with Ora about him, to one of interest, warmth and love, is very heart warming and cleverly done. But for me, the walk does go on a little too long without any real resolution to some of the issues hinted at along the way. We are left not really knowing the answers as to why some key things happened, or indeed to what the outcome of others will be. The walk reveals details very slowly, and sometimes they are still somewhat sketchy after the telling. But some of Grossman's narrative is truly emotional, such as the relationship between the two sons Ofer and Adam as they were growing up and how they helped each other out of their own personal challenges much more effectively than their mother could.
This is not an overtly political novel, and some of the themes that are hinted at could perhaps been developed more than Grossman does, but we are left in no doubt as to the author's views of war. More powerful is the theme of the importance of family, and the strength of parental love, in this case as expressed by Ora, in the life of a child. A moving, and very interesting story - with the backdrop of the author's personal tragedy looming large within it.