Author: Lawrence Durrell
Genre: Fiction (British / Middle East / 1940s / Israel / Palestine / Kibbutz / Romance / Military / Wartime)
Publisher/Publication Date: Open Road E-riginal (11/13/2012)
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: The story of a Jewish woman smuggled into Israel in the 1950s as various forces shape her and the country.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Immigrant Stories, NetGalley
Do I like the cover?: I do (I'm actually quite taken with Open Roads' cover design for all their Durrell reissues!). I like the colors, the retro/vintage photo, the profile, the simple evocative romance of it.
I'm reminded of...: Leon Uris
First line: The old "Zion" was something of a miracle-ship to the loafers upon the quays and wharves of Haifa; they said that she had no right to be afloat at all.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you like Durrell, '60s fiction, or adventure novels set in the Middle East.
Why did I get this book?: Because I'm a Durrell fangirl.
Review: That this novel had its start as a screenplay was something I felt aware of throughout my whole reading, but it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Set in the 1940s, the story is both an adventure novel and a kind of parable of a nation with dramatic landscapes, big emotions, and iconic characters.
Judith Roth, a mathematician and researcher, is smuggled out of Germany and into Israel in hopes she can finish her father's research on a new engine or turbine that will impact oil production. The Nazis, British, and Americans are all eager for Judith's research and assistance as well, but Judith is scarred -- physically and emotionally -- from her time in the camps, and she finds life on a kibbutz to be satisfying and interesting in its own way. She doesn't find pastoral peace, however: her new home is situated on a dangerous border, on the eve of British withdrawal from Israel, and she's captivated and confused by Aaron Stein, the aggressive and good-looking leader of the kibbutz's security team and a member of the unofficial Israeli army. British forces are withdrawing from Israel soon, and the Israelis are preparing themselves for the inevitable conflict to come from their neighbors. The story is fraught with tension, waiting, wondering -- not just for the country but for Judith herself.
This isn't a particularly nuanced novel when it comes to Israel and Palestine so if you've got strong opinions one way or the other, you won't be swayed. As a snapshot of an era and an attitude (1940s, British, pro-Israel), this novel satisfies, however, and I found it intriguing in that way. Durrell's writing is lovely -- not the lyrical loveliness I adored from his Alexandria Quartet -- but pretty at moments, sharply funny at others.
The first chapter -- presumably the film's opening -- has a kind of tragicomic mood to it. The ship's captain discovers among his illicit cargo people, crated up in hay. Two have survived; two have died. He and his second-in-command have a sad but funny back-and-forth about how to dispose of the bodies -- they want to offer some kind of religious burial but neither know what to do. Without extra tarpaulin they're forced to use country flags, and issue small hopes that God will know his people, even if wrapped in a Brazilian flag.
The characters also had a cinematic casting feel: Judith's love interest, Aaron, has the strapping, white-teethed masculinity of a '60s film star (I kept seeing Charlton Heston and Richard Burton in my mind's eye) while Judith's mentor/mother figure, Pete (Miss Peterson) was wiry and tough, a bit like Katherine Hepburn. The British officer Lawton (who was a kind of Captain Renault to alpha male Aaron), had this humorous buddy flick banter thing going on with his younger officer, Carstairs. As with much of the novel, Durrell mixes humor with dark honesty about the situation in Israel, like this scene, in which Lawton and Carstairs realize they're going to have to inspect a kibbutz suspected of harboring illegal immigrants:
"It may interest you to know, Sir, that when I joined the army to fight Hitler, I felt sure that I'd be loved and wanted by the Jews forever after. All this has been a horrible shock to my nervous system."
"Oh, shut up," said Lawton furiously, and his junior subsided into chastened silence, and contented himself by slowly selecting another sweet from the apparently endless supply in his pocket. (p121)
The novel's mood remains mixed with the kind of pithy, dark humor and cinematic drama; it reads quickly and relatively uncomplicated. The characters are fairly vibrantly identified although felt a bit thin -- I never really felt like I got to know Judith or Aaron -- and the inevitable romance didn't resonate either (but honestly, it reminded me of a '60s Bond flick, in which a man can give a woman a look and inevitably, sexing must happen. So not bad, just not realistic.)
There's a long introduction by Richard Pine (the founder of the Durrell School of Corfu) which includes a pretty serious historical summary of events around the setting of the novel as well as the writing of it (and the differences between the film and the book). I'm no expert on this era of history, and Pine's intro was both helpful and at times, overwhelming. (At a certain point, I quit reading it, read the novel, then returned to it and found it more helpful.)
I think Durrell fans will enjoy this newly 'discovered' novel; those who are new to him might find a new author to adore. As with Open Roads' other e-books, this one was wonderfully formatted for easy reading (although the very first sentence of the introduction had a weird spacing issue in mine). This edition includes a glossary of terms and an illustrated biography of Durrell's life which was a fun treat.
*** *** ***
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