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A Good Read
on 4 January 2013
This could indeed have been a very different sort of book - but I think this first hand description of a tremendously significant phenomenon - the birth of modern Israel - albeit a small-scale view through the eyes of someone who barely understands what she is seeing and has little or no sense of the historical background of where she finds herself, is at least as valid a record of human experience as a much more serious, analytical account would have been.
Evelyn is in search of an identity but her adoption of Jewishness is complicated by her growing awareness that there are many kinds of Jew, and all of them are angry with the country she's just come from. When she arrives she's surprised to find that she feels more British than Jewish, but in Palestine she's surrounded by British soldiers and their wives with an innate sense of superiority and a misplaced sense of fair play wholly inappropriate to the prevailing cultural complexities.
The book begins in a deceptively lightweight sort of way and slowly gathers momentum. It's written in a simple, economical style that seems of a piece with Evelyn's personality, not literary but direct and engaging. It was good at conveying the contrast between the brash, modern city of Tel Aviv with it's white walls and straight lines, and the centuries-old instabilities inherent in a place where races and cultures mingle and refugees from the second world war are pouring in and expecting to find The Promised Land.
There's a great sense of place - the brilliant light of Palestine, under which you might think that it would be very hard to conceal anything - a light which, as she describes it, has a merciless quality which, together with the melting pot of cultures living under it, goes some way to explain the violence that rumbles around Evelyn as she goes about what she trusts will be the everyday business of doing the hair of middle class ladies and falling in love with a handsome young man.
I liked the portraits of her neighbours and of the British wives who come to her salon, done in quick sketches rather than in depth but vivid enough to seem real, mostly by way of reported conversations which made me laugh quite a lot - Mrs Linz with her diatribes against men and domesticity, Mrs Linz's child who is always referred to as "the child" (wonderfully enigmatic and very funny), Mrs Mackintosh, the ebullient Johnny, Blum the landlord and the complacent Boltons who turn out to be her escape route when things become very dangerous indeed.
I liked the way she puts herself firmly at the centre of it all, not just what she thinks and does, but what she feels, what her body feels - her physical relationship with Johnny, the weather on her skin, her periods - and her insistence on the reality of the interior life while her lover Johnny has nightmares although he claims he never dreams.
She moves through this new world rather as I feel I might have done, noticing everything, feeling herself to be the centre of everything, and only gradually becoming aware of the fact that she has been noticed, singled out for nefarious purposes by people with their own agendas. She notices everything but at the same time it's as if the external world is a little unreal to her - her interior world is her reality. Suddenly she is way out of her depth and in grave danger as she realises she's being used... And so with little warning to the reader, the book becomes a very different sort of story to the one it started out to tell.