Canadian Writers Abroad has been searching for a Canadian author in Israel or Palestine. The weather here is getting warm, and so too is the search. Found: a Canadian author who wrote a novel set in Israel (Alison Pick) reviewed by a Canadian author who wrote a novel set in Israel (Gabriella Goliger).
Alison Pick’s first novel, The Sweet Edge (2005), was a Globe and Mail “Best Book.” Her second novel, Far to Go (2010), won the Canadian Jewish Award for Fiction. The story of Pick’s family’s hidden Judaism was the inspiration not only for Far to Go, but also for her memoir Between Gods, examining Holocaust trauma between generations. In 2013, Pick was the recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship. This included six weeks in Israel, where she visited one of the first big kibbutzim, which led her to imagine the reality of the early days of the Zionist project versus its idealism. A backdrop that might in some small way help us understand today’s conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Strangers with the Same Dream by Alison Pick (Alfred A. Knopf Canada/Penguin Randomhouse 2017), hardcover, 364 pages.
Reviewed by Gabriella Goliger
Alison Pick reaches for dizzying heights in her new book, Strangers with the Same Dream. Set in a mythical kibbutz in 1920s Palestine, near Mount Gilboa, the novel attempts to pack a demanding structure, a serpentine plot, high drama, larger-than-life characters, complex history, an array of evocative themes and perhaps even a subtle political message into its 364 pages.
The story concerns a group of young, pioneering Jews from Europe, who set up a farming settlement as part of a movement to rebuild a Jewish homeland and rescue the people from its persecuted past. This is the dream of the book’s title: the Zionist dream. The pioneers face daunting challenges – swamps, heat, malaria, accidents, near starvation – but human failings are their biggest handicap, particularly the flaws of their leader, David.
For example, these are his thoughts immediately after his lover tells him she is pregnant: “He looked up and saw the straight line of the Arabs’ stone houses they were now using to store gardening hoes, harnesses, sacks of grain. Behind the houses, there was the outline of the triangular tents, like so many beautiful women’s skirts. All this he saw by moonlight, while the night pressed in so there was no space between it and his body. The night did not distinguish the Arab air or the Jewish air or the last thin breaths his Bubbe had swallowed back home in Bessarabia.
Sarah was looking at him.
“You have to get rid of it,” he said.
(Strangers p. 240)
David, the unofficial head of the group, is a more seasoned kibbutznik, outwardly charismatic, but inwardly weak, self-centred, manipulative and inept to a grotesque degree. His paranoia and womanizing create chaos. He’s such a black hole of negativity it’s hard for the reader to take him seriously. That’s one of the problems with the book. Another is the unwieldy structure.
The novel is told from four points of view. There’s Ida, a sweet but insecure young woman, struggling with unrequited love. There’s David, the above-mentioned human wrecking ball. There’s Hannah, David’s long-suffering wife. And there’s an over-arching narrator – a ghost whose identity we only learn near the end. The Ida, David and Hannah narrations cover the same sequence of incidents, each from its own limited perspective. This may be an effective device for creating mystery and suspense, and for the gradual revelation of surprising truths. However, going over the same ground three times means less space in the novel for other things, such as character development.
Hannah on David: “He was what the grandmothers called chedevnik; something in him shone in a way it did not in other men. It was understood he was not a safe choice. It was understood he was a heartbreaker.” (p. 317-318) “Love was like an anaesthetic that slowly wore off, leaving the throbbing pain and the bloody open wound. There was no preventing it. All love progressed on a downward trajectory from euphoria to resignation to disdain.” (p. 319)
Then there’s the overwrought plot. An innocent child shot because of a fatal blunder. Another child’s agonized death from gangrene. Threats of a blood feud. Multiple betrayals, misunderstandings and deceptions. Fevers of the body and the mind. The climactic murder of a pregnant woman. All too much and much of it too contrived.
In one episode, Ida trusts a complete stranger, a poor woman from an Arab village, to hide her treasured silver candlesticks from the rest of her comrades. (The kibbutzniks are supposed to donate their valuables for sale to avert a survival crisis.) The two women can’t speak one another’s language, but manage to communicate through some miraculous, instinctive telepathy. In another episode, Hannah is coerced to seek an abortion because her kibbutz decides it cannot yet afford to have children. Safe abortions weren’t exactly easy to come by back in the 1920s. It was certainly not something to take for granted in the harsh, primitive environment of rural Palestine of the times. Again, an Arab peasant woman comes to the rescue. “And when Hannah had needed help ending her pregnancy, Anisa had shown her how.” (p. 299) That mysterious “how” is never explained.
These are just two of many scenes that strain credibility. Irritating too are the historical and cultural bloopers. Mention of zippers and plastic in a novel that takes place in 1921. Pita bread at a Passover meal. Mention of the groom circling the bride in the Jewish wedding ceremony. (The bride circles the groom.)
All this is a real shame because Alison Pick is a very fine writer. Her first novel Far to Go justly won much acclaim, including a nomination for the Man Booker Prize. Strangers with the Same Dream does contain powerful, vivid writing and strong depictions. The best are the portrayals of Hannah as an ambivalent, insecure mother and the searing pain of her losses. But generally the characters are overblown or unconvincing. The author does put her finger on an important historical truth: the ideological zeal of the early kibbutz movement often trampled individual needs, especially those of the women. However this theme, and a deeper historical context that would flesh out such complexities as the interaction between the Jewish settlers and Arab peasants, are flattened by the striving for a heightened reality.
An ambitious book. A less ambitious book might have been more powerful.
Gabriella Goliger’s latest novel Eva Salomon’s War (fall 2018) is set in Mandate Palestine of the 1930s and 40s. In it, a young Jewish immigrant falls in love with a British policeman, running afoul of her own community as well as his. Goliger’s novel Girl Unwrapped won the 2011 Ottawa Book Award for fiction. Her collection of linked short stories, Song of Ascent, won the Upper Canada Writers’ Craft Award. She has also won the Journey Prize and the Prism International Award. Raised in Montreal, her longtime permanent home has been in Ottawa. Between 1970 and 1974 she studied for her M.A. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Last word to the ghost:
“From my place outside time I can tell you something true: God exists, but not as people conceive of Him, a vengeful Adonai who dispenses merciless judgment. He is here, the God of the Jews, the One God, in everything — the thickets, the dense acacia bushes, the vast swampy marshlands. In the land of barley and vines and fig trees, of olive oil and honey. And He wants to stay animated in each of us.” (Strangers, p. 248)