Book Review: To the End of the Land
Posted January 6, 2012on:
To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 577 pp.
This novel is absolutely stunning in its depth, beauty, profound characters, emotional contours, and intricate portrayal of the personal impact of war. It feels almost like a betrayal of its thick interweaving of words and images to even describe it to you. Just read it for yourself. It’s amazing, you won’t regret it.
To the End of the Land centers on Ora, an Israeli mother of two young adult boys. One of the boys, Ofer, is about to complete his military service when he must return to the front. Ora is overcome with panic and runs away to hike in the Galilee. She is estranged from her husband Ilan, so she picks up her old friend Avram along the way. Avram was her best friend and lover as a teenager, but he was tortured as a POW in the Six Day War and returned unable to live and love Ora or life itself. Ilan and Avram were best friends as well, and the three of them shared an intense bond that was broken when Avram’s spirit was broken in the war. Avram has never met their two sons, and refused to know anything about Ilan and Ora’s life after his captivity, even though they remained his friends and caretakers.
Overcome by a mother’s love and magical thinking, Ora believes she must protect her son Ofer by keeping him constantly in her mind. As she and Avram hike outdoors and journey across the terrain of northern Israel, she tells the story of Ofer, of her older son Adam, of her relationship with Ilan, and of her own life since Avram has been absent from it. The novel unpacks this journey across the Galilee, Ora’s tale, Avram’s heart, and the toll the war has taken on their humanity.
In a word, this novel is stunning. The characters and the story captivated me from the very first page. Ora and Avram come to life immediately, and then Ora’s tale gives life to Ilan, Adam and Ofer slowly as the book proceeds. Grossman details the contours of a mother’s love, friendship, passion, loneliness and despair in ways that illuminate and expose the human soul. I found myself wondering how he managed to put words to such deep, intricate emotion.
The land is a profound part of the story. Grossman describes the terrain that Ora and Avram hike in the Galilee with detail and beauty, and a touch of magical realism in the characters they encounter and the dangers they overcome. The ideal of the land of Israel has cost these characters a significant portion of their souls. Always in the background floats the question: how much is too much of a price to pay? In the treatment of the Palestinians, in the disruption of families, in the human lives lost or forever broken, in the souls bruised by acts of violence—the price to maintain Israel as a Jewish state is almost unbearably high. To the End of the Land ponders what ends human beings must go to in order to protect and live in this land.
I have read (and am still reading) many books on the land of Israel, its history and politics. But I know when I journey to the Galilee in a few weeks, Ora and Avram will be foremost in my mind. I will still be remembering and working through the complexities of their story, and the way it explores the dynamics of the land and its people. I will be watching for Ora and Avram to appear around the corner of every Galilean trail.