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By Eshkol Nevo (Trans: Sondra Silverston)
Chatto & Windus, £11.99
Has any country since the Second World War produced more great writers per capita than Israel? Israeli writers have punched above their weight for decades. But with Appelfeld and Yehoshua now in their 70s, and Oz 70 next year, what of the next generation? Does Israel have a new generation of young writers to match the explosion of young Jewish writers in America?
Etgar Keret did considerably well last year with his book of short stories, Missing Kissinger, and now Chatto have published another young Israeli writer, Eshkol Nevo, author of a book of stories and two novels. Homesick is the first to be translated and has enjoyed outstanding success, remaining in the Israeli bestseller lists for over a year. Amir and Noa are in their 20s. He is studying psychology in Tel Aviv and she is studying photography in Jerusalem.
They decide to live together somewhere half-way, an anonymous little community in the middle of nowhere. They move in next door to a Kurdish bus driver and his wife and children. Then there’s Yotam, a young boy who lives with his parents. His older brother has just been killed in Lebanon. The story is told in mini-chapters, each from the point of view of one of the characters, so the perspective keeps changing.
Each time, it takes a moment to work out who is talking. There is one other narrator, Saddiq, a Palestinian building worker, whose mother used to live on this piece of land before her family lost their home. This is the one instance of Israeli politics actually coming home. Otherwise, the politics are insistent but distant. Rabin is shot; another bus is blown up. Couples fall in and out of love, bring up their children and buy groceries. This is not a state-of-Israel novel; people don’t discuss the issues of the day. Yet it is a political novel nonetheless.
The characters’ everyday lives are affected by politics all the time --- in the arguments between couples; in individuals’ anxieties about their futures. An exception is Saddiq. His loss is so great that there is no other life to get on with. Readers will differ about him; they will either admire the sensitive treatment of the Palestinian experience, or condemn the sentimentality. Homesick is decent and humane throughout and presents different points of view — men and women, Israelis and Palestinians — but a novel needs more than decency.
No character, except perhaps the lonely Yotam mourning his killed brother, seizes the imagination. And there is not one memorable, powerful sentence. On the other hand, the gnawing question remains: “What is happening to all that pain we don’t face?” The pain of losing a son in Lebanon, but also the quieter pain of a family deciding it has no future in Israel. Perhaps it is this very gentleness that has struck such a chord with readers in Israel.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer