'To the End of the Land': A mother's grief and a country's corrosive burden
Book review: David Grossman's novel "To The End of the Land," the story of an Israeli mother mourning her son, paints a picture of the corrosive effects of war on the Israeli people.
Special to The Seattle Times
'To the End of the Land'
by David Grossman
Knopf, 582 pp., $27.95
It takes nothing away from Israeli writer David Grossman to acknowledge, as he does, that the "echo of the reality" frames his latest novel, "To the End of the Land."
As Grossman was writing the book, his son, Uri, was killed while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Not coincidentally, the book's central character, Ora, is consumed with the fear that her soldier son, Ofer, will die at the hands of the enemy.
In this case, the author's truth helps forge his fiction into a magnificent story addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and the corrosive effects of war.
Grossman accomplishes much in the nearly 600 pages of "To the End of the Land": Biblical allusions and a sense of history weave through the novel much as the plot leads us through Israel's northern hills, juxtaposing the seemingly timeless landscape of the Galilee with monuments to modern-day martyrs. But foremost among his achievements is the creation of Ora, a modern-day Scheherazade and icon of the mourning mother — even though she isn't sure that her son is dead.
The fact that she's grieving a son who may still be alive is half the point. Beside Ofer's presumed fate, she laments a larger loss — the psychic and real costs exacted in a society predicated on war. This is the book's theme.
When we first meet Ora, it's 1967, and she's a sick teenager in an eerily dark and vacant Jerusalem hospital. The Six-Day War has just begun, and she has been judged too ill to send home but too contagious for the bomb shelter. Caught in the same limbo are two teenage boys, Avram and Ilan.
Metaphorically speaking, these three kids (and the Arab nurse who cries as she tends them) signal what's disappearing as planes buzz overhead: an earlier, more heroic vision of Israel as a nation built around the collective energy of the kibbutz.
The story abruptly fast-forwards to 2000. Ora is married to Ilan, now a lawyer. But the marriage is faltering, and Ilan has escaped with their older son on an overseas trip. Alone and distraught over her son, the fiery redhead tracks down Avram. He is a failed writer whose course was set by trauma experienced during his own military service. Ora recruits him for an extended hike in northern Israel.
On the trek, Ora dwells on her son, detailing the "thousands of moments and acts from which you raise a child, gather him into a person." For reasons that unfold, she wants Avram to experience them, and to understand how "the boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized — lost to himself, too."
Needless to say, the novel's perspective is profoundly anti-war, but in such a personal way that it speaks more to the human condition than the politics of the matter. While Ora vents with all the heat and irrationality we'd expect — she's human, after all — Grossman lets the novel unfold slowly and reflectively.
"To the End of the Land" is a powerful meditation. It's as if he's "sitting shiva," the Jewish custom of mourning after a loved one's funeral, not just for his son, but also for his country.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
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