Homesick, by Eshkol Nevo (translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston ).
Dalkey Archive Press, 376 pages, $15.95 (paperback )
You know Noa and Amir, don’t you? The good looking young couple who live up the street, in that little rental apartment attached to Moshe and Sima’s. You know, Moshe. Gina and Avram’s son, one of the Zakian boys. And then there’s that poor family across the way. You know, the ones who just lost their son in Lebanon? The parents have checked out. They’ve got one son left, this scrawny 12 year old kid, wandering around with no one to talk to.
You do know them, don’t you? Well, if you’ve lived in Israel long enough, you will be pretty sure that you do, and will greet them like old friends. And if not, Eskhol Nevo will make sure you get inside their heads so quickly and compellingly that you’ll begin to believe that not only do you know them intimately, but you could move to the Castel - the low rent sister of the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion - and fit right in.
It is with exactly this kind of familiar language and informal writing style that Nevo, gaining increased recognition as one of Israel’s up and coming novelists, draws us into his latter day epic tale of life in the Jewish state. This is the second novel by Nevo, who also published a collection of short stories as well as nonfiction, but this is the first time a major work of his has been translated into English. Born in 1971 and raised in both Detroit and Jerusalem, among native Israelis his name has some cache and a historic ring. He’s the grandson of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, who died of a heart attack while in office - two years before Nevo was born.
Rotating between various narrators, Nevo manages to put us in the minds - sometimes it seems in the very flesh - of characters you’ll swear you recognize. Though there is a thin line here between archetypes and stereotypes, Nevo walks that border well by creating characters with lovable, unique flaws. Each of them, it seems, is missing something - or mourning someone. In fact, the Hebrew title of the novel, originally released in 2004, “Arba’ah Batim ve Ga’agua” (Four Houses and Longing ) may be wordy, but it captures something that “Homesick” perhaps does not. The concept of longing - and the onomatopoeic “ga’agua” in the original - is what is driving all the characters on some level. Moshe, a bus driver in his 30s, longs to be raising his children in a religious environment, like his ultra Orthodox big brother, but his secular, younger wife Sima is dead set against it. She longs for different life choices, and perhaps, if it’s not too late, a different lover. Pre teen Yotam, bereft of his big brother Gidi and living with grief paralyzed parents, is searching for someone to help him stay afloat. All of which lead to the door of Noa and Amir, the dominant protagonists. Unmarried and living together, Noa studies photography and Amir psychology. And though their love looks and sounds great to the world at large, doubt and the daily grind are wearing on their souls, pushing them apart. But the longing and the inability to fill up its empty spaces is perhaps most prevalent in the two phantom like characters who hover over this little nest of houses in the Castel like wise spirits who know more than its earthly inhabitants. One is Saddiq, a Palestinian refugee whose family lived in the Zakian home until 1948, and who lives in an unnamed West Bank village. Now an aging Palestinian laborer working in the neighborhood, Saddiq is being nagged by his mother to return to the house they fled from when he was a small child and reclaim something she left sealed up in the wall. The other is Modi, a good friend of Amir’s who is doing what young Israelis do - traveling the world – and sending back letters that evince a longing that arises when one journeys too far from home for too long. And yet, Modi’s letters beckon for Amir to come away with him and escape the early onset of domestic drudgery.
The layers of longing begin to be peeled away when Saddiq finally comes to get his ancestral booty, and elderly Avram, reuperating at home and still confused after complications during surgery - thinks Saddiq is Nissan, his firstborn son who died tragically at the age of 2. Here, Nevo reminds us that one person’s suffering does not cancel out another’s, and that the legacy of the conflict means that both sides are often still too busy, unfortunately, nursing their own wounds to push for change beyond their front doors.
This is all the more palpable given the events of the novel’s historical backdrop, from late 1995 to late 1996: the Rabin assassination, followed in the months thereafter by a grisly string of suicide bombings. Were this book a painting, this would be the blurred, impressionistic background of “Homesick.” The foreground, the sharp details, are in the fears Nevo’s characters face when they are reminded of the vulnerability of life as they know it - and the possibility of losing each other.
And yet, there is nothing political about this novel, nothing that smacks of prescriptiveness. Nevo deftly brings us back to that sad era without rubbing sorrow in the reader’s face. Rather, he does it by giving us real characters whose struggle is colored by the macro - the state of the Israeli Palestinian conflict - but whose most important struggles are actually much more intimate matters of the heart: love and family.