Off the Shelf: Novels that take place in Israel – part two

Part one of this review focused on the more domestic aspects of Israeli life. This review speaks to the complex issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While politics are involved, all three authors focus on the personal side of these issues, which allows readers to see how they affect individuals living in Israel and the territories. Two of the novels are short and to the point (less than 150 pages), while the third offers a more panoramic view in its 450-plus pages.


Some short novels pack a deceptively powerful punch. That’s true of Raphael Jerusalmy’s “Evacuation” (Text Publishing). The entire novel is a dialogue between Naor and his mother that occurs when he drives her to Tel Aviv. During the trip, Naor, who is a filmmaker, offers a light-hearted tale about how he, his girlfriend Yael and Saba, his grandfather, remained in Tel Aviv during a recent evacuation of the city. Although everyone was supposed to leave, Saba refused, so Yael and Naor decided to keep him company. Even though bombs fall periodically, the three have a grand time roaming the city and making a film. 

The early parts of the novel are light and amusing, but, after about 60 pages, it becomes clear that the adventure will take a darker turn, something that is slowly and casually revealed. To say more would spoil the plot, but, fortunately, it’s not the plot that makes “Evacuation” so successful. Although the novel is fast paced and the prose is easy to read, the characters become so real that the ending left me feeling far more moved than expected. Even readers who guess what occurred will still find themselves reading due to the power of Jerusalmy’s simple prose. This book was so impressive that I’ve ordered a copy of the author’s first work.


The dictionary defines an apeirogon as “a polygon having an infinite number of sides and vertices.” That definition fits Colum McCann’s ambitious and complex novel “Apeirogon” (Random House), which looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a not-quite infinite number of sides. Based on two real-life people – Israeli Rami Elhanan and Palestinian Bassam Aramin, both of whom lost daughters to the violence – McCann shows how the two men came together to use their voices for peace.

“Apeirogon” is a very literary work: it not only includes the tales of the two men, but offers a view of the birds that fly over Israel and the Palestinian territories. Numerous other characters are featured in short bursts, from a former president of France to the 19th-century adventurer Sir Richard Frances Burton. However, the main focus is on Elhanan and Aramin, whose life stories are repeated and retold as their understanding of events changes over the years. Aramin, who spent seven years in an Israeli jail and just wanted to live his life in peace, lost his daughter to a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. Elhanan, who did his army service and was basically apolitical, lost his daughter to a suicide bomber. Both girls were innocent bystanders. Both killers were doing what they considered their duty. Both fathers are determined to stop the killings. 

“Apeirogon” is not always easy to read, partly due to the reality of the situation, but also due to the nature of the prose, The disconnection between sections can be distracting and startling, although, after some thought, the author’s point usually becomes apparent. McCann doesn’t seem to take sides, but rather to question all sides. This is an excellent, if difficult, book, perfect for those who want to understand the human cost of the conflict. 

“The Drive”

One of the basic blocks of Israeli life is military service. Refusing to serve or being released for a mental illness are stigmas that make it far more difficult to find a job, or even someone to marry. What this means to one young soldier is explored in the short novel “The Drive” by Yair Assulin (New Vessel), which has been inaccurately compared to Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch 22.” Assulan’s work is far more serious than Heller’s in its real exploration of what it means to be unable to perform under military discipline. While it also serves as a critique of army culture, the narrative lacks the humor of Heller’s novel.

The novel’s title refers to the drive taken by the unnamed narrator and his father to the army’s Mental Health Services. The soldier claims that he wants to continue his army service, but can’t do so at his current base. His parents urge him to not make waves – telling him that no one enjoys the army, but everyone manages to get through it. However, it becomes clear there is something more occurring: during his current visit home, the narrator has a type of fit, banging his head against a wall and then collapsing and sobbing like a baby. What no one wants to admit is that something is seriously wrong – and that includes the narrator himself.

“The Drive” features a rather unpleasant narrator, one who tends to blame other people for his problems. Readers are then forced to decide whether or not he deserves their sympathy, although it’s clear he is unable to cope with the stresses of army life. Assulin offers a very different picture of the Israeli army than one sees in most novels. Those willing to challenge their perceptions of Israel should find much to ponder.