"Stories from village life? Sounds boring", said my husband when I read the blurb aloud. "Amos Oz has written them, I don't think so," was my reply.
And they were anything else than boring.
Eight stories of eight people living in the same old village, who are all somehow lost or lonely: a middle aged single woman who is waiting for her nephew who was to visit, but isn't in the bus. A widowed woman that lives with her grumpy old father, a former member of the Israeli parliament, who complains about digging sounds from beneath the house at night - as if someone was digging the facade of his life away. He suspects the Arab student that lives in the house's shed, but then it turns out the student hears the noise too. A real estate agent that visits the old house he want to buy to replace it by a modern resort, but it toured the house by the owner's granddaughter and lives an intimate moment with her in the basement. A middle aged man that receives a note from his wife stating he's not to worry about her, but when she does not show up at home, he goes searching for her. Another man, living with his old mother, is visited by a stranger, who isn't clear about the subject of his visit, but slowly it turns out he seems to force himself upon the family in order to receive a part of the inheritage. A nameless single man finds himself at a singing gathering in a house where a 16 year old son committed suicide. Though there is a single woman and they seem to feel attracted towards each other, he is more attracted to the upstairs room where the tragic event happened.
And Oz is merciless. The stories create a sense of unease, the unease felt by the protoganist is felt by the reader. In every story, the protagonist is left in some disconcerting situation: in bed, without knowing where the nephew is but in possession of a random coat; in the bedroom, suddenly hearing the strange digging noise too; in a cellar in the dark with a locked door; on a park bench, waiting for his wife after searching the village for her; on a bed with both the mother and the stranger; beneath the parent's bed, the exact spot where the boy shot himself.
And we, the readers, are left just there. The story stops, and we never learn if Gili's nephew came the following they, if Beni's wife returned, if Jardena freed Jossi from the cellar, or what was the reason for the digging sounds Pessach, Adel and Rachel started to hear. This is wildly disturbing. At first, I was irritated, a bit angry even, wanted Oz to just clear the case. But after a night's sleep I realized this unease was just genius. Village life boring? Every person has his story, his fears, his package of life to carry. And they often aren't relieved in the next minute, or the next day. Why would we, the readers, have the right to be granted that satisfactory feeling then?
I want to give this book 6 out of 5 stars. Or 7. Or a million. Or I want to name a star after it.
I do shed a tear with books when things get emotional. I didn't throughout this book, but when reading the last 5 lines I sobbed. And still did when I reread those lines this morning. I think it requires a lot of writing talent to build up such a reaction throughout 700 pages. And Amos Oz certainly has that talent.
Through the history of his family, Amos Oz tells a history of Jews in Eastern Europe and early Israel from the late 19th century to roughly the 1960s. We learn about their fate, their courage, their hopes, their disappointments. All throughout the book we know his mother died when Amos was only 12 years old, but it's not until last two pages Oz reveals what happened exactly. But the family history, the situation in Jerusalem in the 40s and early 50s, all the anecdotes - they build up to understanding why Fania fell into depression and eventually took her own life.
Amos Oz performs magic in the way he picks his vocabulary and constructs his sentences. I do love words. When the writing is beautiful, I don't care much what actually happens in a story. But a book turns to a gem to me when it combines best of both worlds - as this does.
He carefully chooses what anecdotes to tell, and some of those he mentions several times throughout the book, strengthening their relevance.
I will often think of Fania and little Amos when I hear a blackbird sing.