A novel about love, desire, loss, and revenge in a small Israeli settlement.
There’s a story Ruta Tavori likes to tell about her family: soon after her grandfather Ze’ev, a young man, came from Galilee to start a new life in a newly settled moshava, his brother arrived in a wagon, bringing for him all the things one needs to start a life: a basalt stone to build a house, “a rifle, a cow, a tree, and a woman.” “This is important,” Ruta says. “You have no idea how many times I heard that story, and always in that order.” The woman at the end of that list became Ze’ev’s wife. The violence that soon takes place between them has far-reaching effects on their immediate family and the surrounding community for generations to come. For Ruta has had a tragedy of her own, and she soon tells it: 12 years ago, her 6-year-old son, on a hike with her husband, was bitten by a snake and died. Ruta tells these stories, which are connected, though it isn’t clear yet how, in overlapping, intertwining chapters that move back and forth in time. She is a chatty, sometimes-sarcastic narrator, and she comments on the role of the storyteller as she goes along. As she says to the historian who has come to interview her, “we of all people know that over time only what is written becomes true, and what is spoken doesn’t.” Shalev (My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, 2011, etc.), winner of the National Jewish Book Award and Israel’s Brenner Prize, has concocted a layered, circuitous narrative, ample with emotion. The problem is the sculpting and the pacing of that emotion. The book seems to sag beneath its weight. So many fine details are included (inane chatter between Ruta and her historian, for example) that they begin to crowd out the larger—much larger—story. That means that the denouement feels rushed and the emotional resolution unearned. Shalev may be a force to be reckoned with, but his latest work still leaves something wanting.
This knotty, labyrinthine tale fails to add up to more than its parts.