Tuesday, May 1, 2012

REVIEW: Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua

Second Person Singular, by Sayed Kashua. Published 2012 by Grove Press. Literary fiction. Translated from the Hebrew.

I picked up Second Person Singular after reading a notice about in on the website of the Jewish Book Council; author Sayed Kashua has written two other books that have done well and he himself is a Palestinian who writes in Hebrew and in this book, takes as his subjects two Palestinian men who are each stuck between cultures. First we meet the lawyer (we never learn his name), an upper class Arab-Israeli with a perfect life- beautiful wife, great kids, friends, and an enviable position. Juxtaposed is the story of a lower-echelon Palestinian social worker who becomes entangled in the lives of a troubled Jewish family.

The center of the book is a mystery, a note the lawyer finds in a book, written in his wife's handwriting to another man. The lawyer goes into a tailspin; he imagines and believes the worst, running through elaborate scenario after elaborate scenario to convince himself that his wife is having an affair. The possibility of adultery unhinges him, makes him question everything he thought he believed about women, about sexual politics, about his religion, about the world. While working to uncover the truth, he ventures into some very dark and frightening territory and it's not clear that he'll ever come out.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, we read the social worker's story. Living in a cramped apartment with two Arab roommates, he becomes bored and disenchanted with the hopelessness of trying to help recovering addicts and he becomes the caretaker of a comatose young Jewish man. Over time, he learns more about the man, Yonatan, once a promising student, now a vegetable. And he too goes down a path he never imagined. And in the middle is the story of the note- who wrote it, why, and what it means now.

I really loved Second Person Singular. Kashua takes on some very difficult issues about living in a divided society. He explores stereotypes of Arabs and Jews, how the two groups see each other and how they interact. Both men speak perfect Hebrew and Arabic, allowing them to pass in and out of Jewish and Arab society, hear what everybody says, and what you hear when you're a fly on the wall isn't always pretty. In the end, it's an open question whether anything has changed; both men are trying to live up to somebody else's idea of what they should be, what they should value; neither is secure. Everyone wears a disguise, hiding from others or from him or herself. One man explicitly takes on another's identity; another takes on the form he thinks society demands only to have his ideas about himself shattered. But only one character seems completely untroubled by his or her identity, and it's this person whose true character is the most in question. Kashua also asks us what it matters, this idea of identity. Maybe identity is what you can get away with. Second Person Singular is an impressive and challenging book, and one that I would recommend to just about any reader.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.