To the End of the Land
To the End of the Land takes you into the depths of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of one mourning mother and does not let you escape.
"Once every three weeks or so, he'd come home on leave," Ora says. She would pounce on him as soon as he walked through the door, press her whole body against him, then remember to hold her chest away and feel his soft stubble on her cheeks. Her fingers would recoil from the metal of the gun slung over his back and search for a demilitarized space on that back, a place that did not belong to the army, a place for her hand. She would shut her eyes and thank whoever needed to be thanked--she was willing to reconcile even with God--for bringing him home in one piece again.
This is the story of an Israeli mother, Ora, who makes a "bargain with fate." One of her sons, Ofer, is called back to the army shortly after he is released. Ora - to preempt not getting "the visit" from military officials telling her that Ofer has died - decides to go on a long hike along the Israel Trail so "no bad news can reach her." Avram, a former friend/lover/I'm not quite sure how to describe him, joins Ora. I don't want to spoil the plot, but give you enough of the story that makes you realize how powerful this story is. (This is a good excerpt if you want a taste of the book) If you've read Wild, it's sort of structured like that (hike + flashbacks) but it drifts back and forth in time and point of view that sometimes you're not quite sure where you are.
To the End of the Land was published in Hebrew in 2008, and translated into English in 2010. You do not need to have a deep understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict to be able to situate yourself within this story, but knowing the touchstones of the conflict can't hurt (The Six-Day War in 1967, where the story begins, The Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the Second Intifada all serve as backdrops to the characters lives). Knowing about the Occupied Territories, about the plight of the Palestinians, about the mandatory service in Israel... all these elements weave together to create a vivid portrait of Israel. After his son died, according to a New Yorker profile of Grossman, Amos Oz (another famous Israeli novelist) sat shiva with the Grossmans, and 'Grossman confided to Oz, “I’m afraid I will not be able to save the book,” to which Oz replied, “The book will save you.”
You also do not need to know about David Grossman the author (but you should). Grossman is an outspoken author for peace who started writing this story when his eldest son was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces in 2003 and finished writing it after his younger son was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, but the grief of a parent twists throughout the tale.
And you can feel Grossman's grief, and it makes the story more real and heartbreaking. The story is many things, but it is first and foremost a look into a society that is deeply affected by war and what that does to its civilians and its families. The plot also dives into the impact of the occupation, of prisoners of war, of love triangles.... was hard to get into at first (you have to get used to the narrative style) and sometimes I got confused with what was happening, but I would definitely recommend this story. In that above profile (please go read it, even if you don't end up reading this book), Grossman says:
I always feel that women are more skeptical toward men’s games, like government, army, war, even religion, in a way...I always think of the sacrifice from the Bible. If God came to Sarah and told her, ‘Give me your son, your only one, your beloved, Isaac,’ she will tell him, ‘Give me a break,’ not to say ‘Fuck off.’ She will not collaborate with it, not a chance in the world. And Abraham immediately collaborated. He obeyed, he didn’t ask questions....