Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.
A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.
Amir and Noa power the novel with the intense yet fragile nature of their relationship. Amir, a student in psychology and Noa, a photography student, vacillate between maintaining a simpatico relationship and wanting the freedom of being alone. This feeling of malaise in the relationship leads to Amir’s developing relationship with Sima, the attractive mother next door. Sima is struggling with her husband, Moshe, over religion which is their major bone of contention. Yotam, whose parents are literally cordoned off from each other by their own grief, also befriend Amir. Noa grows closer with Sima because even though they are both twenty-six years old, Noa finds the notion of settling down in as a couple constraining and looks to Sima for guidance. And among all these alliances, they are merely vying for their own version of an inner sanctum that they can call home. All characters reach the point in whatever type love they are experiencing—love of country, physical love, spiritual love, familial love—of wanting to abandon their situations in favor of living a life without the pain caused by loving someone else. This allure of leaving is shown exquisitely in this passage where Amir is waiting for Noa and irritated by having to wait for her, contemplates exiting the relationship:
If she doesn’t come in the next five minutes—I ‘m going alone. She just has to have all those scenes, so there’ll be a little tension, a little drama, otherwise she can’t create, right? Look who’s talking, Mister I’m-Out-of-Here. What was that supposed to be last night? You’re sitting in the living room, all cosy and comfy, eating soup—what could be more wintry than that?—and you start with those prickly thoughts. What happened, things started feeling homey and you got scared? Addicted, that’s what you are. Addicted to change. You pretend that all you want is four walls, a home, and then, the minute it happens, you start planning your getaway. Wait, hold on a second, maybe I’m putting the wrong spin on things. Maybe I really do need to get away for a couple of days, to breathe the air of solitude. But how? I sink without her, revert to being a spectator, a moaner, a masturbator, and when she comes home, my whole body reaches out for her and I want to devour her, to peel and eat her, then listen to her stories with all those little details only she sees. But that’s not actually a contradiction, not at all, she can be fantastic and still suffocate you with that dissatisfaction of hers that bubbles over on to you too. Oh come on, what are you, a symbol of serenity? A logo for shanti? Get serious, don’t put it all on her. But it’s a fact that before we moved in together, it was different. Before you moved in together? It was a lie, a pretence sprinkled with enough bits of truth to make it work, and now—now you want to close the boot on her.
Abandonment appears again as a theme with Yotam, the ten-year-old neighbor boy, who simultaneously feels abandoned and yearns to abandon when he finds a rotting house to hide in:
Inside, there were two rusty cans, a pile of coals and a smell, like someone had done a poo. And there was a mattress that looked new and a long shirt that only had one sleeve. It’s really kind of nice here, I thought. There’s no fridge or TV, but there aren’t any gigantic pictures of someone who’s dead or memorial candles with a smell that makes you feel sick and parent who don’t talk to each other. And not having a roof isn’t so bad either. Winter’s over already and it won’t rain any more. So who needs a roof? Just the opposite. A house without a roof is cool, like the car David’s brother has with the convertible top, the once we once rode in to a class party. You can sleep on the mattress at night and see all the stars, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, and the Milky Way that has no milk. Yes, I said out loud so it would be harder to change my mind later, I’ll stay here until night-time. And if it’s nice, maybe I’ll stay here for ever. No one cares anyway. They even forgot my birthday. I could disappear for a year now and they wouldn’t even notice. Just the opposite. They’d be glad.
This longing to belong, to be loved, pulses through the narratives leaving the reader feel sympathy for every character. Nevo establishes the rules of alienation for each character as the quick pacing pulls us along. The shifting voices and point-of-views coupled with the direct and intimate prose feel like we are dive-bombing into their emotions. Ultimately, each character discovers that their meaning of home can change. And that they can change. This is what makes this novel feel hopeful and redemptive. We all struggle to come to terms with who we think we are and how our self-perception can be so differ greatly when you enter into relationships that always involve some type of sacrifice.
There is a bomb scare, which couldn’t be avoided by Nevo and rightly so, but it grabs the focus for a moment and then evanesces into yesterday’s news without hijacking the novel or making it a centerpiece for manipulated drama. It brushes up against the lives of the characters, shows that it is a part of their existence, but doesn’t force the reader into a political corner. There are also moments of levity, but this was the one misstep of Nevo’s that seems distracting. The humorous scenes border on farcical, like a network sitcom offering the outlandish as plausible. In particular, there is a scene with Avram who is suffereing from hallucinations and believes that the construction worker, Saddiq, is his long lost dead son, Nissan. Saddiq finagles his way into Avram and Gina’s home to claim the house his family owned before the Zakians and in search of a family heirloom buried within one of the walls. The police arrive and hilarity supposedly ensues. This detracted from the beautiful and heartrending tone of the novel. This is a small indiscretion considering the scope and craftsmanship of the novel.
Homesick is a novel that engages on all levels and satisfies with its depth and style. Sondra Silverston’s translation is impressive. Well-written and translated well, this novel is a fitting introduction to the literature of Israel. Not often enough are we given such an accessible and universal look into lives of characters that seem a world away but want exactly what we want—people and places that we can call home.