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by Sayed Kashua & translated by Mitch Ginsburg

Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2019-9
Publisher: Grove

Two Arab-Israelis struggle with their insecurities in this unconvincing third novel from the Arab-Israeli writer. 

He’s sitting pretty, this Arab from the villages of northern Israel; at only 32, he’s one of the top criminal-defense lawyers in Jerusalem, and an expert navigator through the thicket of Arab-Jewish relations. The unnamed lawyer also has a good marriage to Leila, a social worker; it may lack passion, but Leila makes sure the household, which includes two small children, runs like clockwork. The lawyer’s calm, measured tone changes dramatically when a note falls from the used book, a Tolstoy novella, he’s about to read. It’s in his wife’s handwriting and could be construed as erotic. The calculating lawyer turns into a raging monster of sexual jealousy. Has Tolstoy’s wife-killer leapt from the page to possess him? Or is his naïveté about matters of the heart taking its toll? (The lawyer has no experience with other women.) Disappointingly, these questions go unanswered, and their urgency ebbs as Kashua introduces another character, Amir, the protagonist of alternating sections. It’s an awkward structure, made more so by a six-year time difference. Back then Amir, also an immigrant to Jerusalem from an Arab village, was a newly minted social worker, a socially inept kid who went on a not-quite-date with his co-worker Leila, who afterwards wrote that altogether innocent note. So there’s the slender plot connection. Amir has a second job as a caregiver for Yonatan, a young Jewish man in a vegetative state. Gradually Amir assumes Yonatan’s identity. He’s alienated from his mother but finds a willing surrogate in Yonatan’s mother; together, they pull the plug on the Jew and Amir buries him in an Arab cemetery. Creepy, for sure, yet the sequence resolves nothing. By now the time periods are in sync. The lawyer has tracked down Amir, who tells him everything, and the lawyer’s marriage returns to normal; much ado about nothing, then.

Kashua fails to illuminate his characters’ troubled souls.