Ever since Greeks and Trojans first fought in Homer’s imagination, the war story has been a guy’s genre. Although women have brilliantly brought war home in fact and film (think Joan Didion’s “Salvador” or Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”), the fiction of war has been dominated by men. Which makes Shani Boianjiu’s first novel, about three young Israeli high school girls conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), all the more remarkable.
Shifting among the first-person perspectives of Yael, Avishag and Lea, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” tours us through the IDF training required of young Israelis — the tear-gas tent, the tedious military checkpoints, infantry weapons instruction — and its aftermath.
Seen through the lens of youth, war’s horrors come clear: Palestinian kids kill themselves in launching grenades; Israeli kids commit suicide after returning from military service. As Lea says, “Waking up every morning was a tragedy, like killing your own mother, or losing your virginity to a guy who will only sleep with you once, and realizing what you have done just as you are forced to open your eyes.” Bored soldiers hook themselves up to chilled IV drips for the head rush; checkpoints closed to Palestinians become theater as Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers collaborate on creating a newsworthy demonstration.
Boianjiu’s prose has a flat, harsh glare that can seem benumbing at first but evokes the deadening that comes of constant war. Part of this impressive book’s power is that it manages to re-create and rupture that numbness, war’s tedium and the damage it does to memory, intimacy, thought and affection. “During the war, I tried to remember what we used to do all day, but I couldn’t. Each day was its own day.”
Silence stalks this novel in the figure of lousy cellphone signals, Israel’s removal of all phone booths and the enforced quiet of military training, but especially through Avishag, who says she is unafraid of dying but terrified to “have no one to talk to.” Boianjiu makes clear that among the casualties of war is meaningful communication itself.
She also upends the cliche that war builds camaraderie. Yael, a weapons instructor, repeatedly phones her boyfriend and issues orders (“We are breaking up”; “We are back together now”; “We are broken up”), as if war reduced even lovers’ speech to codes and commands. Lea, the popular girl in high school, finds herself friendless in the army, but her uncannily accurate dreams of a Palestinian man named Fadi begin to revive her. “When I woke up the next morning, I was tired, but less.” Her dreams give rise to empathy in waking life, when she sees a checkpoint guard “put a hand on Fadi as soon as he neared and I could see Fadi’s body flinching, how much wrong was in that very touch, how he wished he could punch the man, or scurry, or revolutionize his life, but he couldn’t.” That imaginative bond seems almost redemptive, until Fadi reappears in Tel Aviv.
Among the book’s subtle insights is that the greatest intimacy forged by war is with those one fights. Thus, a guard comes to delight in Palestinian boys who ingeniously steal Israeli property as she stands guard in Hidna village. And in the novel’s most moving chapter, Avishag finds herself reaching out to connect with a Sudanese refugee shot at the Egyptian-Israeli border.
Imagination alone seems redemptive here, a first step in breaking the isolation imposed by unceasing conflict. But imagination is an insufficient match for historical facts: the Entebbe hijacking, the 2006 war, sex-trafficking, the unceasing violence against Palestinians on which Israeli domestic life is predicated. The novel repeatedly changes point of view — from first-person singular, to first-person plural, to third — as if trying to get at the truth of the conflict. Characters’ voices are sometimes indistinguishable, requiring clumsy devices to signal shifts, but the sensibilities are revealing in their range. At a time when so many of America’s best writers seem to be in retreat from realism, championing a return to genre fiction (zombies and ghosts, comic-book characters and thrillers), Boianjiu’s bracing honesty is tonic.
At the end of “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien suggests that a true war story is always a love story. It’s a tribute to Boianjiu’s artistry and humanity that she portrays those on both sides of the barbed wire as loved and feared. “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” is a fierce and beautiful portrait of the damage done by war.
Levy’s first story collection, “Love, in Theory,” has just been published.
THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID
By Shani Boianjiu
338 pp. $24