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The People of Forever Are Not Afraid: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 11, 2012
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Shani Boianjiu's stunning debut gives us a world where girls in the Israeli Defense Forces wait, endlessly--for womanhood, orders, war, peace. Yael trains marksmen and flirts with boys. Avishag stands guard, watching refugees throw themselves at barbed-wire fences. Lea, posted at a checkpoint, imagines stories behind the familiar faces that pass by her day after day. They gossip about boys and whisper of an ever more violent world just beyond view. They drill, constantly, for a moment that may never come. They live inside that single, intense second just before danger erupts. And they find that their dreams have stranger repercussions than they have been trained to imagine.
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What it is about are three teenage girls - Yael, Avishnag and Lea - who are on the cusp of girlhood-turned-adulthood, when they are already fighting: for self-image, independence, and acceptance. To all this, add a whole other dimension of uncertainty and potential danger as they mark this passage as soldiers in the Israeli Army. One reflects, "During her school years she had felt like every minute was part of a race. Get that grade. That boy. Buy that shirt...But the army was a numbing respite from that eighteen-year-long, breathless race."
There are some who will likely question the author's blurring of these three girls. Indeed, there are many point-of-view shifts coupled with rapid-fire language, which can leave a reader feeling a little adrift. My belief is that this was a very deliberate choice; in Israel, there is no certainty and situations can rapidly shift from boring to life-threatening in one moment. During those times, individuality does blur and a greater sense of unity emerges. So it is with the girls.
The stories - and these are, in effect, interwoven stories - are riveting and often horrifying. One of the young girls serves involuntarily in the Israeli military police; she creates an imaginary life for a Palestinian construction worker whom she sees daily, believing that he, too, is living a life that was foisted upon him. Her fantasies are interrupted by a grim reality. In another instance, one of the girls must bear witness to a forced prostitution ring, yet is unable to stand up to her superior.
This is a searing, often disturbing book that does not shy away from some explosive issues: suicide, abortion, rape, and inhumanities. It also provides a totally unique perspective of young women in the Israeli military: girl-women who follow a complicated guidebook of rules, have emotionally complex interactions with the Palestinians they encounter at checkpoints, and receive harsh awakenings.
As one girl states, "I just understood that there are people who live or the fight; for the moments before you lose or win. People for whom this world is not enough; they want ice water in their veins, beauty at any cost, climbing out of ditches under gunfire, exploding necklaces of grenades...And then I knew: those fascinating people - I was never one of them." Perhaps...but these girls are fascinating in their own right.
Stories like Checkpoint and Means of Suppressing Demonstrations will be classics. Other stories, like The After War, are surreal, confusing or plainly immature. Because of this the book is uneven and can easily frustrate a reader who is looking for a pleasant swim toward the happy end.
What make the stories so distinctly Israeli, are the monologues and dialogues written in IDF slang. It is dynamic, rough, vulgar, macabre, and as undisciplined as the Israeli Army itself. The bubbling teenager immaturity fortified by funky Arabic expressions of the slang is easily understood by Israelis but notoriously difficult to translate. Boianjiu wrote the novel in English (not her mother tongue) and is often quite good at conveying the grit and brashness of the slang. But sometimes translation fails, leaving the reader confused by unexpected profanity of misunderstood idiomatic expression.
One Amazon reviewer (who obviously never served in army) gets carried away in his review suggesting that the novel "...seems to stand for an indictment of a country which takes its youth, who ought to be enjoying life...and forces them to do traumatic and oppressive jobs guarding the borders and enforcing the occupation...." The reviewer mistook the grim realism and plain talk of ordinary Israelis blended with macabre mannerisms of the young author for a cry of discontent and protest against militarism. (See The War of Narratives- response of Shani Boianjiu - Jewish Book Council site)
Since the book, despite its many flaws, gives the foreign reader a rare taste of real Israel, I would recommend The People of Forever to those who Are Not Afraid of getting a little confused reading the book.