An ambitious novel about an Israeli, a Palestinian, and the grief they share in common.
Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin both lose their daughters when the girls are still young. Rami’s Smadar dies in an explosion caused by suicide bombers; Bassam’s Abir is killed by a rubber bullet. Rami is Israeli, Bassam Palestinian. They both become advocates for peace in the Middle East. McCann’s (Thirteen Ways of Looking, 2015, etc.) latest novel is a soaring, ambitious triumph: It tells the stories of Rami and Bassam, both based on real people, and their daughters and their land and much else, besides. The novel is splintered into short, numbered segments that count up to 500 before crawling back down to 1. The effect is kaleidoscopic. McCann wheels outward in a widening circuit, not unlike the birds that form a central metaphor that recurs throughout the book. Some segments describe Israeli-Palestinian politics; others are composed of photographs; still others are made up entirely of quotes from figures as disparate as Picasso and Mahmoud Darwish. The result is a sprawling masterpiece but not a perfect one. Rarely does McCann incorporate the voices of women. Smadar and Abir are necessarily rendered silent by their deaths, but McCann doesn’t make much space, either, for Rami’s and Bassam’s wives to inhabit. Nor does he assemble women writers, artists, and intellectuals with anything approaching the frequency with which he defers to figures like Darwish and Borges. Still, his writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply nuanced and sensitive to the afflictions of both sides. As a whole, the book is a remarkable achievement.
Imperfect but ultimately triumphant, McCann’s latest novel might be his finest yet.