This is a fine novel from 2000 about two teenagers caught in the underworld of Jerusalem. It begins: “A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it.” The boy, Assaf, belongs to a poor family, and has a summer job with the city. The dog, a yellow Lab, is Dinka, and belongs to the teenage girl, Tamar. Actually, she has lost the dog before the novel begins, and on the opening pages Assad is following the dog as she seeks out her mistress’ former haunts.
We thus confront a simple beginning, but a complicated novel, complicated because its story does not does not flow in sequence. It is told in different time frames, switching us back and forth between Assaf and Tamar. And to compound the confusion that Tamar’s story has happened before Assaf’s begins, we learn in progressively slow stages why Tamar and Assaf are even doing what they are doing. Indeed, Tamar’s story has nothing to do with her dog. Dinka is simply with Tamar as the girl attempts to join an underground street gang for, at first, unknown reasons. In sum, it is not easy to adjust to the fact that the first story, Assaf’s, is actually happening after the story of Tamar, which soon dominates the novel.
And so while we begin with Assaf running through the streets behind Dinka, who is looking for her mistress, it is really Tamar who is the main character, as well as a more complex character. At first, we do not even know why she wishes to catch the attention of the gang, why she wants to be invited to join it. Slowly, we gather that she wishes to rescue someone in the gang and that she is desperate to do so. But all we know about this gang is that it is run by hard-nosed Pesach, a Russian thug who distributes drugs and sends young runaways out into the streets to perform and collect donations, while gang leaders pick the pockets of those who stop to listen or watch.
But Tamar realizes that the only way she can get inside the gang is to be invited, and so she offers her talent as a brilliant singer. It is a dangerous decision, for once you are in the gang it is difficult to leave. And we do not understand her decision to join, moreover, until she starts planning the rescue. And only when we know whom she wishes to rescue do we realize the reason for her commitment. Much less, the difficulty she faces in rescuing this victim who has been seduced through drugs into joining the gang.
Meanwhile, we keep switching into the future to follow Assaf as Dinka leads him to clue after clue in the search for her owner. And Assaf himself receives, like the reader, a tour of seedy Jerusalem and an introduction to a range of unusual characters. These alternate time frames are somewhat confusing for a while, but each teenager is so well drawn (Tamar, an extrovert, older and wiser than her years, and the introvert Assaf, an innocent confronting the darker side of the city), that both come alive in their world of self-doubt. And so well captured is the desperation of the victims Tamar finds caught in the gang, and so well captured is Assaf’s innocence as he encounters Jerusalem’s unknown world, that we are caught up in both their tales.
What is most remarkable about this novel is that the two main characters meet only at the novel’s climax. Otherwise, they do not know that each other exists. Yet in their yearning, in their search for fulfillment, in their idealism, they seem meant for each other, and the reader cannot wait for them to finally meet. But, of course, the entire structure of the novel has been created to keep them apart. They exist, after, all in two time frames.
This becomes a story of love on many levels. It begins with Dinka’s love of her mistress, as well as Tamar’s love of her dog. It is even more Tamar’s love of her family, since the main action of the novel is built around both the rescue of a loved one and her effort to weed him from drugs. And, finally, there is the burgeoning love of Tamar and Assaf, as each finds in the other what has been missing from their lives, essentially a tenderness that breaks through the hard shell they have built around themselves to survive.
As for love at the family level, it exists in both Tamar’s and Assaf’s family, even though a few do not recognize it. There is even love within the gang’s victims, especially between Tamar and her roommate Sheli. And Assaf has his friend Rhino, who will play a crucial role at the end.
That ending, in fact, is for me the only mis-step in the novel. It is too dramatic, almost soap-operatic, in its turn of events. In particular, its drama contrasts with the development of a tender relationship between Tamar and Assaf, a relationship that seems headed for love, until rudely interrupted. And I was not convinced by either that interruption or the fortuitous rescue that followed. At least, the novel ends on a grace note, as Grossman returns to the possibility of love. The last sentence reads: “Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.”
While some have considered this a young adult novel, the Germans even honoring it as such, it is also a valid adult novel. It simply has two teenage protagonists. And if the movement is fast-paced, to appeal to a younger audience, the novel also probes its characters’ interior lives as well as tension within the contemporary Jewish society in which they live.
Grossman has also been criticized for continuously withholding information from the reader. To enhance the suspense. To entice younger readers who are more interested in plot than in character. The Times reviewer Claire Messud writes: “As readers, we are being toyed with.” She also writes of the author’s manipulation of his two heroes: “Where are the parents of these young people? Why aren’t their surrogate guardians more attentive?… Grossman’s tale requires that Tamar and Assaf be independent agents in order that they may fulfill their respective quests and (inevitably) find each other.”
To me, this is accurate, but unfair. We would not have a story if the lead characters were not on their own. They would not have the independence that leads them to one another. Nor the recognition that they complement one another. We would have an adventure story without a love story. We would have a young adult novel rather than an adult novel. This is not Grossman’s only novel, incidentally, about the search for love. (September. 2016)