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'To The End' A Solemn Exploration Of Israeli Identity

If there is such a thing as scaling Mount Everest in fiction, it's writing a novel that gives us individual lives in their fullness while also capturing how these lives fit into the flow of history.  Where most Americans see themselves primarily as free, self-defining individuals, in many other countries, that's almost impossible -- history is constantly rubbing up against you.

Nowhere is that truer than in the Holy Land. I was reminded of this as I read To the End of the Land, the latest novel by David Grossman, the brilliant Israeli writer and activist whom some call "the conscience of his country," an honorific I sure don't envy him. I have enough trouble being the conscience of myself without having to do the job for millions of other people.

That said, To the End of the Land is a novel that, among many other things, is about conscience. Its heroine is Ora, a gray-haired mother of two, recently separated from her husband. When her beloved son Ofer goes off on a military operation, Ora is terrified for his life. But rather than wait for the so-called "notifiers" to show up at her door with horrible news, she leaves Jerusalem. This is at once a form of magical thinking -- if she's not there to get the bad news, then Ofer won't be hurt -- and a way of refusing to be part of the war-making process. And so Ora hikes for days in the hills of Galilee along with her former lover, Avram, from whom she's been estranged for decades.

As the two climb between terebinth trees and placards devoted to those killed in Israel's wars, Ora tells her life story. We learn all about her and husband Ilan, their two sons, Ofer and Adam, and the family life they built. Along the way, we also learn what happened during the Yom Kippur War that turned Avram, once a spritely source of exuberant artistry, into a quiet man who has retreated from the world.

Grossman began working on this book when his son Uri was in the army, and he hoped that writing it would somehow protect him.  It didn't. Uri and his tank mates were killed by a rocket in Southern Lebanon. Naturally, this gives To the End of the Land a moving resonance, but Grossman would be the first to say that this doesn't guarantee its literary merit or give it any special moral authority on questions of war and peace. If the book was only about Ora fearing for her son, it would be just another boringly well-meaning anti-war novel.

In fact, it's much, much more.  For starters, Ora's story is about living in a country defined by what's known simply as "the situation," the daily pressure of Middle Eastern history with its hatred and pettiness and killing. The book's original Hebrew title is "A Woman Flees News," and the point is that Israelis can't really flee it and remain Israelis. And this exacts all sorts of costs on everyone -- Jews and Arabs alike. Ora isn't simply worried that Ofer will be killed but that, in the ugly process of fighting the nation's battles, he will turn into someone she can't approve of, a hypermasculine thug. She wants him -- and Israel -- to have a clear conscience.

Then again, if To the End of the Land were only about the soul of Israel, it would feel abstract and emotionally hollow. Instead, it's enormously powerful.  Grossman has a feel for the fury and mire of domestic life, for the thrilling sound of the individual human voice. I've read few novels that capture so well the adventure of raising kids -- Grossman has always been drawn to the magic of childhood -- or the way that men's bantering conversation can close out women, even a mother who loves them.

At the center of all of this stands the unforgettable figure of Ora, a woman at once nurturing and exhausting, sensual and deeply moral, boundlessly garrulous and not a little secretive, a life force and a real piece of work. As both a devoted mother of two sons and a loyal daughter of Israel, she yearns to be free of the moral and physical threats that are the very air she must breathe, but like Grossman, she knows there's no escape from history, let alone what lies beneath it -- the terrible fragility of families and nations and life itself.

John Powers is film critic for Vogue and

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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