The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu, Hogarth, RRP£12.99/$24, 320 pages
In 1976, Saul Bellow wrote: “No one is at ease in Zion. No one can be. The world crisis is added to the crisis of the state, and both are added to the problems of domestic life.” His words (in To Jerusalem and Back) ring as true as they ever did. What forms this unease takes, and what toll it exacts, have been the subject of some powerful films and books in recent years, most notably David Grossman’s novel To the End of the Land (2010), which searingly depicted the experiences of an Israeli mother whose son is serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
How to carry on living while brutality is invading the most intimate spaces of one’s being is the central concern of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, the extraordinary debut novel by Shani Boianjiu, a 25-year-old Israeli. Unusually, it focuses on the lives of female conscripts in the IDF. Lea, Avishag and Yael are childhood friends. They’ve grown up together in a tiny town in northern Israel. They go to school, dream about boys, watch American sitcoms, argue with their siblings, fall out and make up with one another. When the girls turn 18, they leave home to do their military service. Lea is stationed at a West Bank checkpoint, Avishag is up on the Egyptian border, Yael is guarding a training base near Hebron.
The narrative shifts from one girl’s perspective to the next and is told in a range of different voices, moving back and forth in time. The result is an interwoven but fractured structure that mirrors the internal fracturing taking place within each character.
Lea copes with the tedium of checking permits and looking out for weapons by inventing imaginary lives for the Palestinian worker she sees each day at the checkpoint. Yael passes her eight-hour shifts staring into the darkness and “waiting for the minutes to crawl by like crippled snakes”. Palestinian boys from the nearby villages stalk the camp, stealing chocolate, boots, bullet shells, metal fencing. Instead of shooting at them, as she’s meant to, Yael takes delight in their cunning and daring.
Avishag’s nights are spent watching Sudanese refugees being shot by Egyptian soldiers as they try to get across the border into Israel. One of them appears on the screen of her monitor, “the size of a fingernail and cute, curled up like an alien”.
The corrosive effects of existing on this continual knife-edge of boredom and horror are charted in a prose style that is, by turns, sharply comic, lyrically beautiful and chillingly flat. English is not Boianjiu’s first language and, perhaps, this accounts for the disturbing power of the prose, the faintly jarring syntax and hyper-precise imagery.
In between military duties, the girls eat burgers, suck ice-lollies, experiment with hairstyles, discuss their crushes, get laid. Given the task of training a younger soldier to shoot, Yael teaches him how to empty his lungs before a shot, how to press the trigger with the soft flesh of his index finger. When he hits five marks in a row, the teenagers tumble into each other’s arms.
It’s a humorous passage but menacing too. Increasingly, as the novel progresses, normal adolescent sexuality is contaminated not only by proximity to death, but by something darker still: the sexual element present within violence itself. Gradually, sex curdles into its own form of killing. All three girls are drawn into relationships that are more abusive than loving. Lea uses violent sex to suppress fear. Avishag uses it to suppress thought. One night she stops an Israeli driver on the Egyptian border. In the back of his truck, 12 young Ukrainian women cower in their own excrement and menstrual blood. But the passports are in order. The senior officer (who treats the women on the base, including Avishag, as his personal concubines) ignores her objections and waves the driver through.
The People of Forever is a multilayered portrait of identity under extreme pressure. Dissociation is shown to be an essential form of survival but one that leaves the young people increasingly severed from themselves. When one of Lea’s fellow officers is killed, his neck “almost cut in two” after leaning into a car to check an ID, what horrifies her most is the realisation that she has been wearing white socks all day, “because we were only allowed to wear dark socks when we were at the checkpoints”. It becomes clear that all three women have been deeply scarred by their experiences, unable to decide if “what had happened to them was even interesting, about whether or not anything they did mattered. About their mattering, or not.”
As I read the book, I recalled a conversation in 1991 with Professor Stanley Cohen, the eminent sociologist who died last month. We were discussing IDF human rights abuses, which Cohen worked tirelessly to expose. He turned to talk instead about his profound concern for young Israelis, specifically the brutalising effect that militarisation was having, and would have, on successive generations of young men and women. At the time his concerns seemed misdirected; on reflection what struck me was their prophetic accuracy.
The People of Forever is a modern anthem for doomed youth, a brilliant anatomisation of the yearning for normality in a situation that renders it impossible. Again and again, Boianjiu subverts simplistic ways of thinking about victims and oppressors in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reminding us that there are heart-rending casualties on both sides of the divide, even if the forms of wounding are not equally visible. If you still need convincing, read this book.
Rebecca Abrams is author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Pan)