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Powerful Israeli debut sign of talent

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GIVEN the complex nature of Israeli society, the country's contemporary Israeli fiction tends to be multi-layered, riveting, unsettling and hopeful.

Israeli author Shani Boianjiu's debut novel is all of these, except the last.

With a title taken from an Israeli bumper sticker, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is intelligent, disconcerting and powerful but hardly hopeful.

Disjointed, difficult to read and difficult to digest, it is also indisputable evidence of a remarkable burgeoning talent.

Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem and raised in a village near the Israel-Lebanon border. Following two years of compulsory military service, she studied at Harvard, where she won an award for creative writing.

A year ago, at the age of 24, Boianjiu was selected as the youngest recipient ever of the U.S. National Book Foundation's Five under 35 Most Promising Writers.

She wrote this novel in English, although Hebrew is her mother tongue.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is the story of three young women, Lea, Yael and Avishag, coming of age in a small dusty Israeli village just south of the border with Lebanon.

Seemingly unaffected by the missiles that rain down on them on a regular basis, the girls are bored with their small town, their parents, their school and each other.

When they each head off to their compulsory military service, they do so with the faint hope that service to their country will be life changing or affirming.

Following boot camp, Lea is assigned to a West Bank checkpoint, Avishag is dispatched to watchtower duty on Israel's southern border with Egypt, and Yael trains fresh-faced new recruits in marksmanship. At night she takes her turn guarding the base.

"Eight hours of standing alone in the dark with nothing but your thoughts and full gear, your weapon loaded. Waiting for the minutes to crawl by like crippled snakes, waiting, waiting, waiting."

This waiting -- for something to happen, for boys to notice them, for school to start and finish, for their military service to begin and end, for wars to erupt and resolve -- is the mantra that rules the girls' lives.

As they wait, they alleviate their ennui with dreams of escape, meaningless sex and mindless, often cruel, mischief.

They are mean, miserable and unlikable girls, and not completely indistinguishable one from the other.

Boianjiu's depiction of them and of the people and places that come and go from their lives is blunt, cynical and often shocking.

Although she clearly has her own writing quirks, the candour of her prose brings to mind Canadian-Israeli author Edeet Ravel's fiction about Israel, particularly her Tel Aviv trilogy.

Like Ravel, Boianjiu tells it like it is, and in the telling conveys the emotional toll taken on young lives when they are raised in a nascent country where politics, cultures, faiths and histories clash, and borders are always just a stone's throw away.

 

Winnipeg writer Sharon Chisvin lived in the Upper Galilee for a year many years ago.

 

 

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

By Shani Boianjiu

Doubleday Canada, 336 pages, $24

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J8

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