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‘Everything was salt and sweat, summertime and sharpened swords’ – what an opening sentence that is. Except that it’s not actually the opening sentence, as there’s a small paragraph before chapter one which begins: ‘Oh Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers.’ That’s a pretty good opening sentence too, and in fact resonates throughout the novel.
I could not put this book down. It’s absolutely beautiful; challenging, confronting, poignant, powerful, political. It’s by turns – and also at the same time – a love story, a love triangle, a coming-of-age-story, a completely open and honest take on the hornet’s nest that is the Israel-Palestine conflict, a searching for family roots and more.
It’s honest, tough, uncompromising in its truth, and deserves to be very very widely read.
Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a young Israeli-born, American-raised writer. Middlebury Magazine says this about his writing:
‘To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.’
As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. He’s not getting any criticism from this reviewer.
The protagonist, Jonathan, is nearly 18 and about to do his compulsory army service. (Moriel refused to his, and ended up in a military prison for 20 days). School is over, he and his friends (who will also go into the army) are spending summer mucking around, smoking, drinking a bit, smoking other substances a lot, and generally killing time. Then Jonathan meets (via his mother’s activist work) Nimreen and Laith, Palestinian twins. They form an instant and strong connection and spend every Friday together, talking, smoking, hanging out. They believe they can have it all, but that faith is shaken when Jonathan goes to the army.
I am not going to give anything else away. I think that Rothman-Zecher has written a really remarkable novel. If you are interested at all in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, you won’t find any quick answers here, but you will find a great deal of insight into the complexity of the situation, the reality of life in the region, and the power of fiction to build bridges.
I think this book would be a great one to put into senior school libraries, but it’s not a kids’ book. I think public libraries should stock it, and I think you should all just go and get it, and read it. You cannot fail to be moved.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
Sadness is a white bird
by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Washington Square Press