To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

This is not a novel about resurrections, as was its predecessor, Life After Life. But it is about that novel’s characters, the Todd family. It is also about World War II England, post-war England, and about one branch of the Todd family over three generations. And, oh yes, this sequel is a marvelous novel.

This 2015 work is about Teddy, the brother of Ursula, the heroine of Life after Life. There is little here about Ursula. It is also about Teddy’s wife Nancy and their daughter Viola. And about Viola’s children, Bertie and Sonny. It is thus about three generations, and extends into the 21st century.

The purpose appears to be to draw a picture through this family of life in England in the 20th century. Not a historic portrait, but a personal one. A portrait of travail (Teddy in the air force), of a self-centered life (Viola), of an unsettled youth (Sonny), of a harrowing death (Nancy), and of old age (Teddy again). On second thought, it is more a portrait of life itself, through this family’s life.

And yet it is more. It is also a portrait of mankind’s nature, his violent nature, exemplified mainly by the bombing of Germany in World War II. In fact, the author says that the inspiration for this novel was an urge to write of that bombing, just as the London Blitz inspired her writing of Life after Life. But if that was her inspiration, she has written here about much more. Indeed, she also writes that this book is about the Fall (of Man). And it is. Such as being about the treatment that many family members endured.

These family events range from mercy killing to child abuse to emotional indifference, and then to cruel foster parents and cruel nursing homes. And one marvels at how well the author gets inside the separate family members, who are either involved in those events or are victims of those circumstances. In Teddy, in Viola, in Nancy, in Sonny, etc. And these characters remain consistent, even if the events are unconnected, like distracted memories. At certain points, Atkinson even advises us of events decades into the future, rounding out a character’s life when least expected.

She has thus written a portrait of life that includes death, but a life that also encompasses tragedy, suffering, and acceptance, as well as dreams of happiness and fulfillment. This scope is underscored as the author moves back and forth in time, taking the emphasis away from the narrative flow of family history and focusing on the separate events and the significance behind those events. More on the meaning of what happens to this family of man than on what the family members achieve themselves.

Deserving particular mention are the scenes of Teddy piloting his Halifax bomber in various runs over Germany, not knowing each time whether he is going to survive, but believing in what he is doing, even if it means this quiet, reflective boy is raining tons of explosives onto innocent women and children. And all this, with anti-aircraft shells bursting around him, with German fighters buzzing at him like gnats, and with neighboring bombers, carrying flyers whom he knows, suddenly bursting into flame and crashing below. It is a marvelous feat of research and imagination—even if the bombing is not condemned, as in an anti-war novel.

And then comes the ending, when the author turns things upside down. The reality of the novel becomes fiction and the author’s fiction becomes our reality. That is, the reader is asked to accept that Atkinson has made everything up—just as Aunt Izzie early on turned Teddy’s real life into that of a fictional character named Augustus. The author writes: “This sounds like novelist’s trickery, as it indeed perhaps is, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of trickery.”

Oh, yes, I think there is. It did not with Life After Life, where the trickery, the resurrections, were at the heart of the novel. But it is wrong here, when it comes only at the end—and as a surprise. No. It is too arbitrary. We are asked to accept that what has happened in such detail has not happened. I was going along with the ending, with Teddy dying in his nursing home, and imagining that he has actually died in the war. For it makes death come alive to him. And to us. It even makes psychological sense for a novel that is about death—as well as about life. And, indeed, exemplifies the Fall of Man.

And I also admired the figurative collapse of a building at the end, as buildings did fall, both in the Blitz and in Germany as a result of the Allied bombing. And I accepted this as a metaphor for the ending of a life, Teddy’s life. There is even the paragraph that begins: “Moment’s left, Teddy thought. A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment.” It is a beautiful description.

And then this is taken away from me? In order to mirror Life After Life, when a death is not a death. That now a life is not a life? Atkinson calls it “a great conceit,” says it is “the whole raison d’être of the novel.” I think not. I do not accept that she has collapsed the walls of her novel to reveal it is fiction rather than real. Fiction is real, must be real, internally, for the reader to accept it.

Which is not to say I do not recommend this novel. I do. Highly. For its portrait of a family, of the uncertainty in war, and of postwar England. I just do not accept the author’s twist at the end. An attempt to merge its theme, perhaps its meaning, with the novel that precedes it. The two novels don’t need it. They are a pair anyway, with their portrait of a family, the portrait of separate aspects of a war, and the presence of death.

The title of this novel is taken from Emerson: “A man is a god in ruins.” The god in this case is Teddy. “When men are innocent,” Emerson continues, “life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we awake from dreams.” Teddy’s life was defined by his bombing career. “The truth was there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do.” Also: “Part of him never adjusted to having a future.” Thus, his long life is passive. He fathers a child, oversees grandchildren, writes about nature, but does little else, and then dies quietly. He is truly “in ruins.” Also, an innocent. So…is this an anti-war novel, after all? (December, 2016)

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

This 1990 work deserves its reputation. Here are the experiences of civilian soldiers during a few months in Vietnam, as they discover the fragility of life and the humanity of their fellow soldiers. The author identifies one soldier as himself, and dedicates this book to the soldiers in these stories, although he also acknowledges some of the stories he tells have been fabricated.

This has been called a book of short stories, but it is, in effect, a novel. Because it is about the same platoon of soldiers who appear in each tale, one or more featured in one, other soldiers in another. A few of the tales leap ahead, and reveal the impact of Vietnam on a soldier’s future, particularly the soldier writing as a 43-year-old author.

Some of the stories are quite brief, not full stories, rather quick anecdotes that illustrate a particular aspect of the war. The best story by far is the title story. It is a tour de force which lists all the items a soldier carried into battle in Vietnam. Some items varied according to his role and the mission. Other items included his food, insect spray, and toilet paper, and all items included a precise listing of what each item weighed. But not only material items. Soldiers also carried the weight of other burdens, such as their fears, dreams, hungers, pain, and so on.

There are also memorable stories about death that expand into multiple stories. One concerns a Vietcong soldier killed on a jungle trail just because he was there, and the guilt one American soldier carries even when his buddies later try to talk him out of it. Another concerns the responsibility for an American Indian, Kiowa, being buried alive in sea of mud. His sad fate depends on a series of ignorant decisions and the guilty conscience of those who could not save him.

A few stories stand alone, such as the narrator’s (O’Brien’s?) abortive attempt to flee the draft. He does not because he is embarrassed to be seen as a coward. Still others are enhanced when the narrator recalls events from years later and evaluates their effect on him both then and now—when he has a family and is a writer (as O’Brien). The collection concludes with a kind of hymn to death, contrasting that of a girl, when she and the narrator were nine, to the deaths that he as a soldier witnessed in Vietnam, as well as other subsequent deaths when soldiers returned to civilian life. Indeed, the entire book reflects through these stories the dream of bringing the dead back to life.

O’Brien blends here the brutality and pain of warfare and the haphazardness of death; the use of humor, of denial, of lies and exaggeration in order to cope; the haunting memories and the failure of memory. It is also about both irony and sentimentality; about the blurring of fiction and fact; about the tension between harried soldiers and their love for one another; and about the shifting values that arise from experience. A review in the Richmond Dispatch sums up this work: It is “about a lost innocence that might be recaptured through the memories of stories….O’Brien tells us these stories because he must….this is the book about surviving.”

This is also a unique book. A novel comprised of short stories, yes. But also a novel about memory, about guilt, and an uncertain reality. A novel about reaction more than about its violence. A novel about the imagination prompted by reality. A novel about small incidents in the universe of war. A novel that sees the truth of war inside men’s minds, in the courage, the fear, that it creates, rather than in the suffering bodies.

O’Brien said in an interview that he did not write about the Vietnamese people because he did not know any. He did not write about battle because he did not experience any. He experienced “an aimlessness, not just in the physical sense but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.” And that is why he wrote the kind of book he did. It is, he said, “a writer’s book on the effects of time on the imagination. It is definitely an anti-war book. I hated the war from the beginning.” He says it is a book “about man’s yearning for peace.”

He has certainly met that objective. This is about American civilians unprepared to fight a war in a strange land, not understanding the reason they are there, and trying to cope with the unreality around them. And in one person’s memory of that experience it captures the experience of all. But it is also about the elusiveness of experience and the elusiveness of memory. As Robert R. Harris wrote in his Times review, “[O’Brien] makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that reality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer.”

I have read, and liked, two of the author’s earlier works, Caccioto and Lake of the Woods (both good, the former better). O’Brien’s Vietnam service obviously had a great impact on his life, and literature has benefitted from that experience. The author has graduated from fantasy to magic in those earlier works to playing with memory in this book. Which gives this work a more subtle approach, and also a more human approach. There are fewer fireworks and more exploring within. This work is also simpler on the surface, with more complex inner lives. The result is a more mature work, even if a shorter one.

I am drawn toward more of O’Brien, but primarily if he further explores his Vietnam experience. I would note, however, that for a single work of fiction on the Vietnam war, I still regard Matterhorn as the peak achievement. For it truly captures what the experience was like, as it follows a single company across the Vietnamese terrain and portrays a series of natural and violent confrontations with the enemy. (February, 2016)