A.B. Yehoshua, Friendly Fire
A.B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is a story of a long married couple. Amotz (Ya’ari) is an engineer tending to the needs of his children, grandchildren, and elderly father, while his wife, Daniella, is in East Africa mourning the death of her older sister.
Chapters alternate between Ya’ari and Daniella, with various sides of the story told from East Africa and Tel Aviv. The beauty and history of Africa provides a backdrop that informs and saturates the narrative. Details are revealed by increments, through events. In Africa we see the austere life of Yirmiyahu, Daniella’s brother-in-law, whose son had been killed six years earlier in the West Bank by “friendly fire.”
As Daniella grieves for her older sister, she tries to understand what made her brother-in-law denounce his heritage. “Simply a time out from my people, Jews in general and Israelis in particular.” Daniella’s offering of newspapers, magazines, and candles from Israel appear to him as a “slimy reptile” and are tossed into the boiler. Through his prose, the author captures the pain and regret of Yirmiyahu, and with candor, he helps us to consider the meaning of the term “friendly fire.”
The author’s ability to capture the ordinary and extraordinary is arresting:
And within the welling yellow-green blueness that peers at her with longing, moisture slowly condenses into a tear, and after the first flows another, and the tears of the mute animal, who may also be expressing thanks, melt the tourist heart, as if this moment finally fulfills the wish she has brought to Africa on the holiday of Hanukkah.
The use of present tense throughout the novel lends an appropriate tone to the story. It’s thought-provoking and personal, and enables Yehoshua to raise, with grace, personal and moral questions about family. How does one juggle: aging parents, children, jobs, other relatives, and their problems without falling apart? Yehoshua’s characters are not perfect, but are beset by good intentions. The world is not all black and white, but filled with many different colors—of people, of places.
Friendly Fire is a deeply empathetic novel about the ties that bind and tear. Yehoshua has a sharp eye for details, and writes with sensitivity about the delicacy and complexity of human entanglements.
Deborah Copaken Kogan, Between Here and April
Deborah Copaken Kogan’s first novel, Between Here and April, is the story of Elizabeth Burns, a war journalist, attempting to piece together the circumstances surrounding the mysterious disappearance of a classmate, April, three decades earlier. The motivation for Burns’ efforts is somewhat baffling, as she learns the basics of April’s death with one trip to the library. However, Elizabeth pursues this death with family interviews, etc. Perhaps her belated realization that this horrific event required more attention than a few words in the local newspaper is an acknowledgement of how jaded we, as a society, are about these routine tragedies.
Her research intensifies her own questions about being a “good” mother and wife, as she analyzes the parenting styles of herself, her own mother, and April’s mother. Kogan appears to aim for the questions any mother may have about her own efforts, and/or those of her own maternal figure. Marriage is a seemingly thick thread woven throughout the novel, yet Elizabeth and Mark’s marital difficulties beat a hasty retreat without any further explanation.
Although a happily-ever-after is often anticipated in American literature, there is no requirement that all stories must neatly wrap up with a fairytale ending. This one, however, ends abruptly, after two hundred plus detailed pages. We see the story of a person’s life unfold, as told through the eyes of those around her, three decades later, but to what end?
Certainly, to showcase Kogan’s knowledge of photography (the salient topic of her memoir, Shutterbabe), war journalism (again, Shutterbabe), and the challenges of New York City motherhood.
Thomas Glavinic, Night Work
What if you were the last person to live on earth? What would you do? Where would you go? What kind of strategy would you have for survival, if you chose to survive? Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, set in Vienna, bravely undertakes a story that has been told and retold over centuries.
Jonas, an introverted, not particularly heroic or romantic guy, is the last person to walk the earth. At most, Jonas is average, which contributes to the book’s successfully quiet and honest tone.
Glavinic’s short, suspenseful sentences supply the reader with nearly every detail of Jonas’ journey, from what he eats and where he finds his food to which tools he uses to break into buildings. The form of the book fits its content; the mechanics of Jonas’ meticulous plans allows for both Jonas and the reader to forget the circumstances under which Jonas now lives, for a moment. “He found a torch and some industrial gloves right away. The furniture trolley took longer.”
The prose moves gently from Jonas’ hands and his procedures of survival, to his mind: his questions, his memories, and his growing paranoia. “He had an urge to throw all the cameras out of the window […] There was an answer, there had to be. The outside world was a big place.” Glavinic’s writing is frank and stays at ground level. Despite the book’s subject matter, Glavinic doesn’t overdo it with grand, brazen statements about life or the human race. Instead, he builds on the complex psychological plot of the main character.
One ingredient of Glavinic’s plot is his series of what ifs. What if Jonas had never met Marie, his girlfriend of several years? What if Jonas was murdered? Would he then exist “[s]omehow, somewhere? In some unfulfilled form?”
Other ingredients: terror and suspense. The main character scares himself and the reader simultaneously: “He examined the motorbike. Both tires were flat. He took a closer look at them. They’d been slashed.” The tension is soon defused, however, and suspense is often too slowly rekindled. Nevertheless, the reader is strung along by larger mysteries and questions, and returns to Jonas’ intensifying world before too long.
Brendan Short, Dream City
Dream City examines the lives of its protagonists with candor and sympathy. Ostensibly about the life of Michael Halligan and his progression through a difficult childhood into a similarly disappointing adulthood, the novel stays within its scope as a melancholy story about unfulfilled expectations and Job-like hardships. Written in episodic fashion, Dream City is composed of pivotal moments in Michael Halligan’s life and the lives of those around him. The vignette-style moves the book along at a thoughtful pace, jumping ahead years at a time in order to catalog various difficult events, such as the death of Michael’s mother and the miscarriage of his first son. Many of the scenes from Michael’s life and the lives of those around him feel integral, while the more peripheral scenes seem to exist in large part to enhance our sense of sympathy for the pathos-steeped cast of characters. Rather than help push the story towards a higher level of poignancy, they reinforce the novel’s overarching theme.
Secondary figures, such as Michael’s Aunt Mae, a Miss Havisham-type character, and Paddy, Michael’s overbearing, thuggish father, are familiar, vividly depicted personas. In the more poignant moments they find redemption in each other through sincerity and love. While its characters evoke plenty of pathos, Dream City rarely transcends the idea that life is difficult and most often disappointing. In this sense, Short’s novel accomplishes what it sets out to do by showing us a world full of grief and adversity where redemptive moments are few and far between.