diaTribe: Homesick for a Plot Spark

This is a guest post by Olivia Herstein.
There’s a small village about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem called the Castel. It’s just downhill from Jerusalem, and downhill is an apt description for the stream-of-consciousness novel by Israeli author Eshkol Nevo, “Homesick.” Everything in its characters’ lives seems to roll downhill, as does the novel’s grip on its reader.
Set in the Castel, the novel revolves around two brooding young lovers, Amir and Noa, two students who decide to move in together to take their relationship to the next level and split the distance between their respective schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They spend the rest of the novel whining and complaining about whether they’ve made a mistake. Their troubles also seem to parallel those of the young, married landlords living next door: a bus driver, his opinionated wife and their two small children. Their house, meanwhile, is watched by an Arab construction worker who realizes that the home belonged to his family before they fled the village, el-Castel, during Israel’s war for Independence in 1948.
Set in the mid-90s around Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the novel describes perfectly the ennui and frustration surrounding that dark time in Israel’s history. The bus bombings. The terrorist attacks. The fear. It’s not an uplifting novel, but it is an accurate portrait of young adult life in Israel at the close of its first half-century.
The most compelling and worthwhile relationship in this novel revolves not around Noa and Amir—and whether or not he should pursue his chosen field of psychology—but the floundering, school-age boy he befriends in the village. Yotam has just lost his big brother, Gidi, to hostilities while the teen soldier patrolled Lebanon with his army unit. In fact, Noa and Amir wander into the shivah—the house of mourning—by accident on their way to meet their new landlords for the first time in the Castel.
After Gidi’s death, Yotam’s parents fall apart and appear to lose all interest in their surviving son. He wanders about the village and the empty lot between his home and the students’ apartment. Alone with his studies, Amir eventually invites Yotam in to play chess, watch TV and enjoy a bit of company. It’s a heartwarming and memorable thread throughout the book, much more so than the grating anxieties of photography student Noa, trying to find herself and her muse all at once.
Yotam grows throughout the novel, seeking solace from Amir and processing his grief. It’s his narrative that kept me engaged in its pages, listening to the boy find his voice:
“This is the last time I’ll be visiting you here, I said to Gidi. Maybe I’ll build a monument in Australia too. It depends on whether there’s an empty lot there. I hope you’re not cross with me for leaving … Because I’m not cross with you any more and I’m not waiting for you to surprise me and come back some day, or answer me when I talk to you. I know you can’t. Anyway, Gidi, I hope you’ll keep watching me from up there even when I’m in Australia. From heaven, it’s the same distance, right?”
“Homesick,” written by Eshkol Nevo, was published in Hebrew in 2004. This new English translation by Sondra Silverston is now available at Amazon.com or Dalkeyarchive.com ($15.95).

Disclosure of Material Connection, required by the FTC: TC Jewfolk received a complimentary review copy of the book.