By David Grossman
Jonathan Cape £18.99
The lavish praise already heaped upon David Grossman's huge, ambitious new novel - Paul Auster has called it "a book of overwhelming power and intensity" and compares Grossman to Flaubert and Tolstoy; Nicole Krauss has written: "Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same" - is vastly overstated.
At his best, Grossman is certainly a great writer. But, like Philip Roth, he is one of those great writers who can be very uneven, producing whole chapters of breathtaking genius, side by side with clunky and sentimental prose.
The opening 50 pages, introducing Ora, the central character, show Grossman at his very best. And whenever he moves from everyday realism to offer a glimpse of the true strangeness of his characters' lives, the novel catches fire.
Ora is going through a mid-life crisis. Her husband has left her. Her family is breaking apart and now her younger son, Ofer, is in the army. She panics, terrified that he will be killed on duty, and she runs away, to hike in the wilds of northern Galilee. She contacts an old friend, Avram - a creation of genius, tragic, clever, fascinating - and most of the novel follows them as they discuss old times and the terrible things that have overtaken them, and Israel, since they first met.
The structure will be familiar to readers of Bellow and Roth. A central character, in crisis, runs away and the narrative circles through past and present, as she reflects on her life. The problem is, this novel does not have the brilliant prose of Bellow or the bite of Roth, or the humour of either.
In 580 pages, while there are occasional beautiful or memorable sentences, there are far too many like this: "He grew introverted, resigned to reducing his vitality to that of a plant, a lichen, or a spore." Or this: "A lost and irrelevant leaflet of joy hovers in her eyes."
Sometimes, it is not clear whether the fault is Grossman's or that of the translator, Jessica Cohen (whose American English remains untouched by the UK publishers). There is a superb scene in which Ora arrives at Avram's apartment but then we get this: "And there they were: the heavy breakfront with the peeling polyurethane lacquer…" What is a "breakfront"? It doesn't matter because at this crucial moment the reader is distracted and the atmosphere ruined. Worse, try this description of someone's "open, pussy wounds", which also comes at a central moment, depicting the shocking torture of one of the characters. You know what is meant. A wound filled with pus, but "pussy" sounds furry or feline. The atmosphere again is wrecked.
Just as irritating are the liberal pieties that run through the novel. Many readers will love its sentimental account of the Palestinian driver, Sami; the earth-mother feminism; the clichés in which the soft, intuitive yet smart woman speaks for peace and decency, whereas the hard men speak of the necessities of war and the need to be strong and tough. The state of Israel today is seen through Ora's eyes, shocked by the way her sons and nation have been brutalised, made indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians. If The Guardian or Independent could write a novel this would be it: humourless, sentimental and politically correct.
This is a shame because there is so much to admire. Whenever Grossman writes about children or teenagers, the writing takes off, as it does in his description of Ora's visit to Avram's squalid apartment and the strange numbers she sees on his wall.
Set-pieces such as this one, the opening scenes in an isolation hospital, and the torture scene are superb. One day, Grossman will write a whole novel as good as the opening of See: Under Love or the prologue to this book, and it will truly be a work of genius.