Speaking in the middle of a fraught promotional tour in Germany, Israeli author Eshkol Nevo tells me that he wasn’t even planning a new novel when the first of three voices that comprise his latest, Three Floors Up, came to him. Arnon arrived like “a character barging into your room,” he says, describing Arnon further as someone who “tells you his secrets”.
The story is set inside an anonymous, suburban Tel Aviv apartment building where, on the first floor, the wheels are falling off Arnon’s life; his marriage and family are disintegrating. Hani, on the second floor, is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of her husband’s brother, a financial con man. Above them both, on the third floor, Deborah, a retired judge, finds herself swept up in the city’s social-justice movement.
Although the finished novel seems very structured, Nevo found one confession following another, prompting six months of intense writing and re-writing. It coincided with a time in Nevo’s life when he “knew a lot of secrets”— either from conversations with friends or letters from readers. Fundamental questions arose in Nevo’s mind about whom we choose to tell our secrets to, and why; and about loneliness. The latter issue, Nevo says pointedly, is one especially pertinent to a writer’s life.
The result is a highly charged novel, propelled by a sense of urgency pervading a deeply disturbed city of damaged inhabitants, hurrying to confess.
“I live in a very conflicted, haunted society,” is how Nevo says he relates to Israel, though the novel’s themes — loneliness, violence, sex — are far from being confined to one country.
“It’s rarer than ever to find an opportunity to have a soulful conversation,” Nevo reflects, “of the kind I used to have these with my friends. We’d spend nights talking to each other. WhatsApp has replaced the one-on-one conversation…writing like this feels like diving into a person’s soul.”
Because of its emphasis on the characters’ desire for intimacy, Three Floors Up cannot accurately be described as political, though Israel’s 2011 social-justice protests — which began with the “tent cities” that were set up in Tel Aviv — form the backdrop to Deborah’s story, her confession amounting to a call for action.
“I thought they were a magnificent moment,” Nevo says of the protests. “When you are part of a social or political movement, it affects your life over many years and I wanted to remind myself, while writing, of how wonderful and powerful it was.”
In Three Floors Up, Nevo asks that age-old question of how well we can really know the people who live above, below and around us.
This connects, he says, to his “other life” as a creative-writing teacher. “After the first lesson and the students submit their first [piece of] homework, you discover their secrets: their memories, heartbreaks, frustrations, and unresolved issues.
“With teaching and writing,” Nevo argues, “you always feel there is a story behind the story.”
‘Three Floors Up’, by Eshkol Nevo is published by Other Press at £14.99. Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist