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Book review: To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

David Grossman in 2008

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Even before it was published in Hebrew a little over two years ago, To the End of the Land was "positioned as a book whose importance exceeds the ordinary realm of literature, as a text expressing the tribe's heartfelt howl," as Michael Gluzman wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. The novel achieved this cultural éclat in part because it was seen as a tragic parallel to the author's own life. Grossman's youngest son Uri was killed during the last hours of the 2006 Lebanon war, a military adventure the author had eloquently opposed.

The book's Hebrew title is Isha Borachat Me'besorah ( A Woman Fleeing from Bad News). Indeed, its primary narrative takes the form of a mother's long hike through the Israeli countryside after her younger son, whose military service is at last over, decides to return to his old unit for one last campaign. Unable to bear waiting for the dreaded knock on the door, the mother "flees." If the soldiers bearing the bad news of her son's death "can't find her, [her son]won't get hurt."

To the End of the Land is actually a book of multiple journeys through time and space, all of which involve or orbit its central and only female character, Ora - a variant of the Hebrew word for "light." The first of these journeys is the long taxi drive Ora takes with her son Ofer to the army drop-off point. The taxi driver is Sami, an Israeli Arab and long-time family retainer who adroitly straddles the Arab-Jewish divide, and a man whom Ora believes is a real friend.

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Too late she realizes the insult of asking Sami to take a soldier into battle against his own people. By the time the trip is over, their relationship has been strained down to its underlying, unyielding reality. " 'Drive,' she commands, surprised by the trickling sensation of something she has never felt toward him before: the sweetness of power." When she orders him to take her "to where the country ends," the northern Galilee where her hike will begin, Sami hisses, "For me it ended a long time ago."

Ora is not alone on her hike. She has dragged along her old friend Avram. And Avram is no ordinary pal. He is Ofer's biological father, her husband's best friend. He is also a ghost, a shell of man who by his own account "died" in the Egyptian prison where he was gruesomely tortured following of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Avram has refused to meet his son, to allow Ora to even pronounce his name. Soon Ora's running-away-from becomes also a journey of reconciliation - between her and Avram, with whom she has barely spoken in years; between Avram and his unacknowledged son, whose backpack he at first grudgingly carries but in whose clothes he ultimately walks - and of rebirth.

But what of Ilan, Ora's estranged husband, and their son, Adam, her first born? Although father and son have left the country on a long holiday, they are very much present on this trek through the Israeli countryside. As Ora and Avram walk, she tells him the story of her husband and two sons over his long years of self-imposed exile. In the silences between the talking, each ponders and remembers. At first, the point of view is almost exclusively Ora's. But slowly Avram's body and brain awaken. He begins to ask questions and Ora begins to remember so much she had forgotten. By the time the novel nears its end, the intricate web of relationships that make up this single Israeli "family" has been woven, with Ora at its centre.

I don't have room to explore the richness and complexity of these five people as Grossman has so completely, painfully imagined them. But I must speak of Ora, who embodies contemporary Israel in all its contradictions. It is Ora who must feel so deeply - both joy and pain - and suffer so profoundly. She is every Israeli mother of sons.

I know one such woman. When I asked her if she had read the novel, she replied that she'd made it about halfway through and then had to stop, unwilling to relive the paralyzing fear of loss from which Ora attempts to flee. "There is not one mother in Israel who has sons in the army who is exempt from that fear," my friend wrote to me. "It is built into the DNA of this country."

In Ora, David Grossman has mapped the genome of his beloved, tragic land. Her humanity is so vivid that she will stay in your head for a very long time, as will this deeply moving, profoundly sad work of art.

How does Ora's journey end? It does not, it cannot. But while the journey continues, perhaps there is hope.

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Rick Archbold is a Toronto writer who has visited Israel several times. His current work-in-progress is stage play called How to Read Hebrew.

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