What is it like to be a woman soldier in the Israel Defence Forces? The 25-year-old Israeli novelist Shani Boianjiu has personal experience of it, and her answer is: a mixture of boredom, fear and sexual frustration. Her three heroines, Lea, Avishag and Yael, grow up in an unnamed village near the Lebanese border, as did the author herself, and when they receive compulsory drafting, they find that the tedium of army life is not that much different to the tedium of high-school life.
It’s not the first time that an Israeli novelist has chosen the army for a fictional subject — some may recall Moshe Dayan’s daughter Yael did so decades ago — but Boianjiu’s take on it is far more modern. Her three friends narrate their experiences, dreams, rebellions and irritations in short chapters, some no more than half-a-page long, and, although their voices are so similar that they blend into one, their characters are pleasingly distinct. Lea is the bossy one, and goes to work on the West Bank checkpoint as an officer; Avishag is the melancholy one, who goes into a combat unit on the Egyptian border; Yael, the funniest, trains soldiers how to use their weapons.
Their lives are not very different from those of millions of other young women on the threshold of adulthood as they watch American TV shows, gossip, and dream about boyfriends. The difference is that they are also trained for “ABC” — attack by atomic, biological or chemical weapons. Shouted-at, half-suffocated and told not to answer back, they are lippy Jewish girls caught in a cross between Girls and M*A*S*H, except that, mostly, the guns don’t have bullets (known as a “dry hump”). It’s a far cry from Yael’s mother’s experience, recounted at the very end, which involved the raid at Entebbe.
The story follows the girl’s lives out of high school, into the army and then into civilian life. Lea gets married, has a baby and writes successful pornographic novels; Avishag goes on to antidepressants and psychotherapy; Yael becomes a translator, and a traveller.
The first half of the novel is convincingly detailed and, as the girls’ families, friends and fantasies about the lives of others — not only Israeli boy soldiers but Palestinians, Sudanese and Egyptians — are delved into, it begins to achieve a greater depth and political resonance.
“Great job! You stayed hopeful and dedicated to your goals in an environment of oppression and negativity. You should really become an activist and free some slaves,” a voice in a game tells them, with pointed irony.
Due to a lack of narrative momentum and any growth in self-knowledge or maturity, their charm wears thin. This is, however, a fresh and funny debut by an author who brings us news of life on the front line of young Israeli womanhood – even if this turns out to be not so different from that in Golders Green.