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)

Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin

The Irish widow whose name comprises the title of this novel surges to life on these pages. As does Ireland itself. But the heart of this 2014 novel homes in on the mourning that Nora endures, following the death of her husband of 21 years from a heart attack. Even though she does not mention it, and neither does author Toibin, that mourning produces in Nora an emotional seclusion that is buried deep within her. It surfaces with such thoughts as: “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself.”

And so, we follow the widow Nora as she, first, pushes away any help from her own and her husband Maurice’s family. While her two older daughters, Fiona and Aine, are away at school, and so concern her less. In her own suffering, she is also blind to the mourning of her two young boys, Donal, who hides behind his photography, his stammer, and smart comments, and Conor, who hides intelligence inside his own innocence.

But there are those in town, and the perceptive reader, who recognize what she does not. That she is withdrawing from the world and hiding behind her own mourning. Whereas, she needs to turn back to the world. So people try to change her. Because they loved her dead husband Maurice, see the goodness inside Nora herself, or they value her reputation. One offers her a job, to supplement her pension. One asks her help to start a union in her company. One invites her into the public arena by filling a gap at a community function. One suggests she get away by joining her on a vacation to Spain. One suggests she join a choir to take advantage of the voice she has inherited. And as she does accept these invitations, albeit some with reservations, one does sense her cautiously re-opening herself to the world around her.

Moreover, as Nora gradually comes out of her defensive mode, she re-evaluates the needs of both her children and herself. She understands that an awareness of reality and a certain freedom will make her children stronger, and that she needs to think of her own needs as well, such as the pleasures of buying new clothes and enjoying music. And slowly, she learns to make such decisions, rather than wondering what Maurice might have wanted.

One wonders where this novel is going, once Nora seems to have recovered her bearings. But this is when the work becomes truly rich. For she has not fully recovered. There is more to be absorbed, and more withdrawal to be made from the past. She must ignore dreams of a past death, or any conversation with her dead husband. And she must renew the closeness with her three sisters that has not existed for a long while. Even an overheard conversation among those sisters—“She was a demon,” one says—opens to the reader the younger Nora, and deepens her portrait, revealing how her marriage to Maurice saved her from a life that was stifling her.

Nora’s final withdrawal from the past will be the symbolic burning of the letters her husband wrote before they were married. “She did not look at them. She knew them.” And: “they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back.” For some, this might be too obvious a symbol to appear on the final two pages of this novel. But for me the burning as well as the entire final wind-down to this novel is the perfect conclusion to this life whose story is concluding at one level and yet must continue on another.

For this novel is about life. Yes, about Nora’s life. But also about human existence. How each story within our own lives often does wind down quietly. And how any dramatic event would have spoiled this novel, spoiled its blend of uncertainty and confidence that characterized Nora’s life after her husband’s unexpected death. And Toibin does emphasize that uncertainty, for Maurice in his ghostly reappearance suggests, without detail, that something is going to happen to Conor; and then he also says, “The other one. There is one other.” And neither we nor Nora understands what he means. But it is a suggestion of the unknowableness, the uncertainty, of life itself.

In the background of this quiet story, anti-British violence flares in Ireland. It is the 1960s and 1970s. Much discussion of these events takes place, but the reason is not clear. It appears to be intended to offer a contrasting drama to heighten the quiet of Nora’s life, and perhaps, through the family discussions, to bring to life those people in her extended family. Even Nora’s visit to Dublin with Fiona in search of Aine, who is participating in an anti-British demonstration, is anti-climatic, for Nora trusts that Fiona will find her sister, and so the mother returns home.

Perhaps, as Jennifer Egan suggests in the New York Times, “each of these crises dissipates, as crises often do in real life…[and represents] Toibin’s resistance to an artificially dramatic arc.” She also adds: “The absence of melodrama…gives the illusion that Toibin’s carefully engineered novel is unfolding with the same erratic rhythms as actual life.” And that, indeed, is the path of Nora’s initial escape—into the details of her job, the details of her music training, and the details of family get-togethers.

It is such small decisions that Nora makes, along with her growing self-awareness, that help us identify with her suffering. As she realizes she will never have a musical career, she does enjoy the pleasures of music, even if it is “leading her away from Maurice…she was alone with herself in a place where he never would have followed her, even in death.” To step away from Maurice, and toward independence, she knows, will help save her.

As Nora slowly recognizes this need to break from the past, she becomes more alive. Living within herself was not enough for her, just as it was not enough for the reader. As an example, she begins repainting her home without thinking of what Maurice would want or say, or of the cost. And if the latter comes at a price, a few strained muscles, she learns that she cannot do everything herself. She must also rely on others.

To separate herself from the past, Nora finally donates the clothes of Maurice that she couldn’t let go. And then burns his letters. She also agrees to sing in a concert of religious music, a concert that memorializes a concert of forgiveness offered after World War II. It represents indirectly, I think, the peace Nora now feels, and perhaps starts her wondering if she can forgive God, the God Donal has just reminded her of, for the loss of her husband. It also reminds me to look for more of Colm Toibin’s fine work. (August, 2017)

Someone, by Alice McDermott

I should get tired of writing the phrase: This is a beautiful novel. But I cannot, not when it is a beautiful novel. Even if this 2013 work is not structured, as I prefer, chronologically. Even if it is not concerned with story. Even if it is concerned with just one person, its narrator, Marie, from when she is seven years old to when she is enduring the infirmities of old age.

But even more, I believe, this novel is concerned with life. As personified by Marie. Which is probably the reason for the title: Someone. Marie is someone, someone McDermott makes us concerned about. Not for what she is, as much as for what she experiences. Which is life.

Yes, she is plain and nearsighted. And when jilted by a supposed boy friend, she is near despair. ”Who’s going to love me?” she asks. And her kind brother Gabe answers: “Someone. Someone will.” And, yes, this gives the novel its title; but it is meant to do more, I believe. It is meant to give Marie a more generic life, to make her represent more than herself, to make her represent everyone. To make her represent the life that everyone experiences.

And this is why McDermott does not tell Marie’s story directly. Why she jumps around chronologically. We are not to focus on Marie. We are to focus on the life she lives. As representative of the life we all live.

Not that it is easy to get used to a structure in which childhood, adolescence, motherhood, and old age do not appear in sequence. That is, we experience her first heartbreak and her eventual marriage; her brother’s brief stint as a Catholic priest, his loss of his vocation, and his breakdown; her parents’ deaths; her “temporary” ten-year job in a funeral home; life at home with squabbling children; and the changing world of Irish-Americans. Marie labels everyone as fools for thinking anyone cares about us in a world in which we are victims of suffering, injustice, and mortality. But the novel suggests many do care. And the life of fools that we endure is a condition of this life that the novel celebrates.

Because Marie’s story is not told in sequence, we read of her pregnancy before her marriage, of her grown children before she gives birth. As a result, we read to learn not what will happen next to Marie, but to learn how what has already happened grew out of her earlier life. Thus, there is a different kind of suspense, based on a different kind of reader curiosity.

As with life, this novel reaches no conclusion. The ending recalls the opening pages, but what really happens when Marie recalls the death of a childhood friend from a fall on cellar stairs, as she herself climbs down her stairs in the dark? Is it that she has just helped to protect her brother Gabe’s life? And now: “We’ll see what happens next.” Who knows? Just as I was not sure why her beloved brother left the priesthood and later was confined to an asylum. Yes, there were hints and rumors, but, as in life, there are no sure answers; and McDermott offers an anecdote by husband Tom to stress this.

It also happens that Gabe is the most interesting character here, undoubtedly because he changes and yet there is no explanation for those changes. Because of the author’s skill and compassion, however, we feel not frustration as a reader but a greater understanding of Marie’s own concern.

One can only conclude that this uncertainty is part of the ordinary life that the author is depicting here. For that ordinariness is at the heart of this novel. Indeed nothing extraordinary occurs here—nothing besides death, childbirth, madness, and love—that would make Marie’s life different from any other. And the key to conveying that ordinariness is a prose style that is simple, that itself is ordinary, that focuses on the presumably insignificant details, on intimate family scenes, on familiarity with both physical and emotional pain, and, overall, on an empathy for the human condition.

Kevin Spinale sums this up in America. “It is the story of woman’s life—someone named Marie.…Yet, the majority of the story is empty, emphasizing the beauty of the story that is given—how fragile and subtle someone’s life is. How indefinite and ordinary and beautiful anyone’s life can be, if there is someone, anyone with whom one can share it.”

And Roxanna Robinson adds in the Washington Post: “Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief. Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it’s this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom and caritas, that’s at the heart of Alice McDermott’s masterpiece.”

This is not a novel that required research, or a special knowledge. It simply required a way of life to have been lived, and then to capture it in a simple prose that matches its subject matter. It required a middle-class Catholic life lived among a changing urban society. And an author who understands, identifies with, and sympathizes with that way of life.

Interestingly, this is a novel written out of a Catholic sensibility but not one in which Catholicism plays a major role. Its heroine Marie, indeed, rebels against her faith’s restrictions, just as she does against the conventional wisdom of others, including her parents and her doctors. Even when her brother Gabe leaves the priesthood, it is accepted rather than explored.

In an interview, McDermott calls herself a contrarian. One wonders how much her Catholicism has contributed to that sense of herself. For the Catholic way of life is not only separate from the mainstream of traditional American society, it is also out of the mainstream of the traditional literary world. Catholics, with their own values, look at life differently. And surely this novel looks at an American life differently from most current novels. I refer not to the structure but to the ordinary life shown here in that structure.

To sum up, may this not be the capstone of McDermott’s career. But it could be. For it simplifies a novel down to its basics. It is about one life, and yet about all lives. It focuses on the ordinary, but the ordinary that encompasses all our lives. It is about the limitations to our knowledge of others, rather than the usual omnipotent delineation of others by the author. And it is about writing simply, without the flourishes of an author calling attention to herself. (July, 2014)