I read this book for Giraffe Days’ Around the World Challenge. For July, the challenge was to read a book set in Israel, a country I really should know more about, because my father grew up there. He has a passion for Israel that’s hard for me to understand, having never been there.
I thought about reading The Source by James Michener or The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, but I wanted to read something modern. The People of Forever is about three women growing up in current-day Israel. It was selected for the 2013 Women’s Prize Longlist. Boianjiu is 26 years old, served in the Israeli Defense Forces for two years, and this is her first novel.
It begins with Yael, Avishag, and Lea as teenagers in the same small town, thinking about boys and parties. As the girls graduate high school, they are gradually drafted into service. This is Avishag’s first experience in boot camp, a test of how long the soldiers can function after being exposed to poisonous gas:
I take off my mask and at first I feel nothing but the pain in my scalp. Then I feel the fire, the burn. I cannot open my eyes. I stop taking air in through my nose. But I open my mouth, I do.
And I talk. I have been waiting for so long. This is my chance. As long as I am choking, I am allowed. Yael and Lea are not here to drown my words with their chatter. No one in my family is around to ignore me. My talking serves a purpose. My talking, my tears, are a matter of national security. A part of our training. I will be prepared for an attack by unconventional weapons. I could save the whole country, that’s how prepared I’ll be. My entire head is burning but my mouth rolls off words; they taste like bananas, and they go on and on and on.
This is a difficult book to review, because I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can say it was well-written with powerful imagery. I can also say that I appreciated the perspectives of these women, growing up in a place where military service is expected. This book gives you a sense of how connected Israel is to the rest of the world, compared to how isolated we are in the U.S. These women have to deal with Palestinian workers, Sudanese refugees, Ukrainian sex trafficking, and Egyptian torture camps. At the same time, they are similar to young women in other parts of the world: they watch American TV shows, braid each others hair, and have crushes on boys.
Going into military service right after high school grows these women up very quickly. They experience terrorism and checkpoint arrests and learn to fire weapons. Many of their experiences are overwhelming – especially to a reader like me who has experienced none of those things. I feel completely unqualified even to review this book.
One of the most interesting things for me was reading about military service from a female perspective. In some ways, these women are treated more like men than I would expect in U.S. military service. But even in Israel, they are subject to a great deal of sexual harassment. They are also given jobs that are slightly less dangerous (at one point, Boianjiu says women are much more likely to survive their service than men are). There may be politics in this book, but it seemed to me more of a “this is what life is like” kind of book. Governments do horrible things to each other, and these characters just have to survive in that environment. Still, they are scarred by what they experience, and what they can’t do anything about.
The writing of this book is impressive – it’s poetic and raw and from the gut, rather than just telling you what happens. It’s an interesting blend of poetic imagery and really crass language, which might be off-putting to some but felt authentic to me. Unfortunately, the book was also very hard to follow because it jumps from character to character, and the three women don’t have clearly different voices. It’s difficult to remember who is narrating, and which histories go with which character. It’s almost more a collection of stories than one linear plot. It also jumps around in chronology, and sometimes it’s not clear what’s real and what’s imagined. In short, this book takes a lot of effort to follow.
This wasn’t an easy book to read, but in the end, this book gave me what seems to be an honest, unflinching portrayal of what it’s like to grow up in Israel. I’m glad I read it.