We instantly like Noa and Amir because they are a kind of Israeli Everyman and Everywoman. And what makes them even more likable is the extent to which they are antiheroes who defy the stereotype of what Israelis - men and women - are supposed to be. It is Amir who is the sensitive one, the one who does the straightening up and the cooking, and this caretaker tendency spills over into the neighborhood. He has terrible memories of his army service where, far from being a decorated soldier, he nearly killed another soldier in a hapless misfire. It is Noa who spends more time out of the house, and eventually, makes the move to leave when things get rough. Both, it seems, are struggling to figure out whether they love each other, and what’s more, whether they love themselves.
Nevo also brings us into a world with which many of us are less familiar: the Kurdish Jewish family that is the Zakians, who come with their own interesting sayings and superstitions. Nevo spends less time getting into the depths of the Israeli family grieving for their slain soldier son and the Palestinians pining for their old home. But his accomplishment is that in these situations, which could have felt rather pat, we still discover something that feels fresh and credible.
There are moments in which Nevo perhaps tries to do too much, being in so many characters’ heads in such a short stretch of time, trying to take in so many points of view at once. He makes the reader work hard, compared, say, to the experience of reading a novel such as Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” which, though it too has multiple narrators, labels them clearly for ease of reading. Here, unnumbered mini chapters are demarcated by a simple star, and it’s up to you, the reader, to figure out in whose shoes you’re now standing. Some of the narrators do this in first person, while other characters are written about in an omniscient third. The result can be dizzying. Nevo requires the reader to stay alert, forcing a more active level of concentration than many may be accustomed to. One can’t just breeze through the pages of “Homesick” careless as a summer day, as one sometimes can with a novel, because it would become impossible to maintain awareness of which character’s head we’re currently in. Some readers will love the challenge of deciphering who’s up now - usually the clues come soon enough – but others may find the extra effort to make for a less leisurely reading experience. Translator Sondra Silverston does an excellent job of putting the original book’s colloquial Hebrew into an accessible English, preferring Britishisms to the point where one sometimes feel one is in the middle of a novel in a working class town in England, rather than Israel. Mothers are called “Mum,” people wear “trainers” and not sneakers, a baby has a dummy in her mouth - though a dumb American will from the context realize that this must be a pacifier. The familiarity we feel is not just due to the realistic dialogue, but derives from the fact that Nevo does achieve something impressive here. His characters are at once completely Israeli, and at the same time, universal. Their struggles, their losses, their longing are in fact not so peculiar to Israel, and are peculiar, if anything, to the human condition. Or, as the character Sima puts it, when she realizes that all is not well in the lovers’ paradise she imagines her tenants’ lives to be, “something’s always missing.” From characters grieving for a lost son to the characters pining for a sweeter love, a better life, that they imagine to be out there, somewhere, everyone has something that doesn’t sit right - or which keeps him up at night.
Living with this longing also means that not everything will be set right by the end of the story as we know it. These characters, like most people we know, will cope rather than conquer. And some of the things we love will, unfortunately, be ephemeral, like the runaway dog a minor character still misses: a dog named Snow.