Thursday, February 17, 2011
REVIEW: To the End of the Land, by David Grossman
I'm going to start this review by saying simply that David Grossman isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. He's dense and challenging and he has a tendency to lapse into experimental writing, and it's in this vein that he begins in the first chapter of his masterful latest novel, To the End of the Land. The book tells the story of four men and the woman around whom all of their lives revolve. Avram and Ilan are best friends; Ofer and Adam are brothers. Ora is friend and lover to both Avram and Ilan, mother to Ofer and Adam. As the book opens, Ofer is returning to military service in the IDF, voluntarily, after a brief spell at home and as he and his mother are preparing to take a long hike together through Israel's countryside. Ilan and Adam have left her and when Ofer is called up, the walk is called off. Except that Ora doesn't want it to be, doesn't want to sit at home and wait and worry for her son. So she gets in a taxi and literally drags Avram from his bed and takes him with her.
The book opens with the trio- Ilan, Avram and Ora- as lost children in a hospital, where they form a tight bond. Grossman then flashes forward many years to Ofer's call-up. Ora and Avram and Ilan are in late middle age and have years of baggage between them and changes the narrative style to a more conventional mix of narrative and flashback. The top layer of the story concerns the hike, and Ora's endless store of stories and recollections about her family, which means herself and the four men of her life. Time spent as a prisoner of war in Egypt has transformed Avram into a bitter and traumatized recluse with unsteady employment and a series of casual girlfriends. Nothing sticks; he lives day to day, and initially resists Ora's attempts to draw him out. Lurking around every corner, and between every sentence the two utter, is Ofer; everything Ora does is an attempt to bring him closer while pushing away the pressing, aching fear that wracks her body and soul.
Underneath that top level is so much more. The years are stripped away as the two walk, and walk, and walk. Ora narrates most of the time, and her voice is compelling and complex, full of loves, insecurities, jealousies, and memories. She tells the stories of her children and their childhood, private stories unknown to Avram, with whom she's been out of touch for years. She tells the stories of her marriage and stories about Avram also unknown to him. Grossman writes her character with empathy and understanding. He sees right into her heart with its shifting allegiances and complex yearnings.
I really wanted a happy ending for these charred characters but Grossman is too smart to give us any sort of ending, happy or not. He teases us with the possibility of their happiness but won't let us close enough to touch. What he does do is create a vivid, searing novel of love and death, the reality of war, the fervent wish for peace and the ravaged country of Israel. Ora asks, "how can you even describe and revive a whole person, flesh and blood, with only words- oh, God, with only words?" Grossman uses his words to describe more than a person and more than a place; he's trying to get at the whole of the human soul. To the End of the Land is a magnificent, essential work of literature destined to be a classic.
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.