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the complete review - fiction
To the End of the Land
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- Hebrew title: אשה בורחת מבשורה
- Translated by Jessica Cohen
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B+ : uneven, but substantial
See our review for fuller assessment.
Divided, with many thinking it's a brilliant anti-war novel while others think the writing (and translation) flaws bog it down
From the Reviews:
- "Mr Grossmanís characters are not so much in possession of their experiences as possessed by them. They are gripped by a deep uncertainty about what will happen next: a terrorist bomb, the violent death of someone close, the overwhelming of their country by the enemies that surround it. It is next to impossible to rest or be at peace. Some seek to withdraw from this situation, others to resist it. It pervades existence in ways that make a distinction between the personal and the political something that is longed for and quite impossible to achieve." - The Economist
- "Oraís observations are often moving and sharp, but can also be repetitive and banal. The poor translation doesnít help. The improbability of Avram stumbling along silently as he is assailed by Oraís memories and her evocation in detail of Ofer and Ilan, becomes oppressive. Oddly, in this monologue, we occasionally get Avram or Ilanís point of view, but never any alleviating Joycean irony or humour. (...) For all that, this is a deeply serious, utterly honest work about the state of Israel. And because of this I am sure that many will take it for a great novel." - Justin Cartwright, Financial Times
- "Mit Eine Frau flieht vor einer Nachricht hat Grossman einen bewegenden, vielstimmigen Roman geschaffen." - Anja Hirsch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "To the End of the Land is a chronicle that loops back through Ora's memory and history to cover every war since the founding of Israel in 1948. Ora believes that Israel has no future: "It doesn't really have a chance, this country. It just doesn't." Although Ora will never leave Israel, she is running away (the Hebrew title is A Woman Escaping News). All the characters in this story are in some sense escapees. The novel is a tribute to their resilience as well as to the precarious vitality of family life, memories of which form the densest fabric of the book. (...) To the End of the Land is a novel that recounts like no other I have read the lengths to which a mother will go to preserve the life of her child." - Jacqueline Rose, The Guardian
- "The absurdity of this premise, Ora's hysterical illogic, her almost compulsive need to narrate every thought and feeling and image that passes through her mind during the charged days of Ofer's deployment, might have made for a story too shrill and disordered for the reader to bear." - Sasha Weiss, Haaretz
- "In a novel without any obvious plot, there are continuous surprises as Grossman reveals more and more of the intricate connection between the three characters. (...) Gassy superlatives have been heaped on this novel by writers such as Paul Auster and Nicole Krauss. It is tricky to set out the scale of Grossman's achievement without resorting to reviewers' clichés. He has aimed as high as it is possible to do in a novel which deals with the great questions of love, intimacy, war, memory and fear of personal and national annihilation -- and has overwhelmingly achieved everything. To the End of the Land will have to be read and re-read to begin to scratch the surface of its ambitions to scrape raw the human heart." - Linda Grant, The Independent
- "Truthfully, To the End of the Land shook me to the core of my being, not only for its unforgiving observations of the Israeli mentality and communal brainwashing or because it revisits almost all the wars and conflicts since the founding of the state, but for the mere fact that it embodies every parentís worst nightmare: the fear of losing a son in battle. Moreover, it fearlessly examines that loss weighed against a nationalistic ideology that you arenít entirely convinced you agree with." - Ruth Eglash, The Jerusalem Post
- "Perhaps Grossman does not quite achieve his objectives. Some aspects of the story are rushed; for example, the reference to the internal dialogue that Avram must live through as a result of his experience in the Sinai desert is all too brief. Others are too oblique, such as 'the incident' in which Ofer is involved during his army service. But there is no doubting the author's skill in evoking a mother's love -- and anguish -- in creating what Ora terms 'a eulogy for the family that once was, that will never be again'." - Sarah A. Smith, Literary Review
- "In its rougher stretches, To the End of the Land can feel overly sentimental and laden with awkward contrivance, but the novel's overwhelming, insistent emotional richness rewards the reader's indulgence." - Akiva Gottlieb, The Los Angeles Times
- "Weil er weder moralisiert noch doziert, weil er die beunruhigende Wahrheit des Romans in einem dichten Gewebe aus innerem Monolog, Dialog, Erzählung und Landschaftsbeschreibung verankert und das Geschehen aus Rückblenden und Erinnerungen zusammensetzt, gelingt es Grossman, im Unglück des Einzelnen ein allgemeines Unglück zu beschreiben und eine Hoffnungslosigkeit zu artikulieren, die wirkungsstärker ist als jeder politische Appell. Auch deshalb ist das ein grosser Antikriegsroman." - Stefana Sabin, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "It is a testament to Grossmanís novelistic talent, indeed perhaps his genius, that To the End of the Land manages to create and dramatize a world that gives both the reality and the echo their full due. He weaves the essences of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary, vivid detail. While his novel has the vast sweep of pure tragedy, it is also at times playful, and utterly engrossing" - Colm Tóibín, The New York Times Book Review
- "Grossmanís account of Ora and Avramís lengthening flight from their painful lives is a tour de force. Told primarily by Ora, the story is a male authorís insight into the mind and emotions of a woman. One thinks of Anna Karenina, and this novel can bear that comparison (...) Apart from his evocation of a womanís life, here are two ways that Grossman shows his mastery -- I use that word deliberately -- of his craft. He tells us what we need to know primarily through acts and speech, rather than through description, always the mark of a poor writer -- except when the description itself comes before us as unique to the character. (...) Another sign of Grossmanís mastery is his ability to introduce story after story during the walk without showing the seams, without making them into a jumble" - Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator
- "To the End of the Land depicts a nation warped by collective military experience. (...) The narrative of Grossman's novel threatens to meander, and patience is required to reach the point where Ora and Avram slip into full flow. Once they are on their way, however, the story becomes transfixing. Honeyed and portentous, rhythmic and often breathless, the prose sweeps the reader into a pool of shimmering reflection." - Toby Lichtig, Times Literary Supplement
- "Grossman's book aims to free itself from the congealed vocabulary of war, which the novel suggests has infused every aspect of Israeli life, in much the same way that the novel's heroine, Ora, hopes to escape notification of her son's death. (...) A desperate book that somehow does not cause despair, a book about death that stubbornly insists on life, To the End of the Land, like all great literature, is an act of generosity, opening itself to every human possibility." - Donna Rifkind, The Washington Post
- "Meisterhaft beleuchtet Grossman die Psyche einer Frau und Mutter, erzählt von Liebe und erotischer Leidenschaft, von Männerfreundschaft und leisen Nuancen des Alltags in einem von Gewalt und Angst zermürbten Land" - Anat Feinberg, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
To the End of the Land seems to be a novel of exploration: of self and family and nation.
The central figure, Ora, delves into and wallows in the past, especially her overlapping relationships with the four significant men in her life, her two lovers and her two sons.
(Ora doesn't have or find much to do with women: the only significant female figure in her life, a girl named Ada who was like a sister to her, died when she was fourteen, while even her mom barely makes a cameo appearance.)
Ora dredges up a great deal, looking for holds and savoring memory, yet she is also on the run: she, like all the main characters, finds herself overwhelmed and taking headlong flight (futilely, of course).
As she sets out:
"Drive," she said when she sat down next to Sami.
The country is Israel, its borders -- and thus where the land begins and ends -- more controversially and unclearly defined than most.
(In response to Ora's instructions to drive to where the country ends her Arabic-Israeli driver, Sami, puts another twist on that, hissing: "For me it ended a long time ago" -- but that issue is only briefly addressed early in the novel.)
Israel is also an entity that defines so much of Ora and the others characters that it is practically inescapable.
Nevertheless, the characters are, for the most part, making various attempts to flee -- some from the country itself, some merely from aspects of it and their own lives.
Ora's husband, Ilan, -- who has a pattern of suddenly removing himself -- has again opted for a physical rupture: after separating from Ora (not for the first time) some nine months earlier he has now simply gone far abroad with their older son, Adam, leaving them entirely out of sight (though not mind).
"Where to ?"
She thought for a moment.
Without looking at him, she said, "To where the country ends."
Ora, too, is fleeing: as the original Hebrew title, אשה בורחת מבשורה -- 'A woman flees news' --, has it, she wants to avoid the possibility of hearing the dreadful news that something has happened to her other son, Ofer, in an act of prospective avoidance she seems convinced might actually affect reality.
She and Ofer had been planning a trip to the Galilee to get away from it all and celebrate the end of his military service, but there's been an emergency call-up for a major offensive (the year is 2000) and Ofer badgered the military into letting him sign on, on a volunteer basis, for another twenty-eight day hitch, so that he can also serve on some front (also 'where the country ends', of course) -- his own form of flight.
There is no particular reason to believe he'll come to harm, but Ora is so terrified of it that all she can do is run away.
Ora does take the trip, but instead of going wandering with Ofer she goes with his father, Avram, whom she hasn't seen for several years and who has long fled from most reality -- never, for example, having seen his son -- and is living in a pharmaceutically-induced haze when she picks him up (though he perks up rather fast on their travels).
The novel's prologue, set in 1967, describes how Ora and Ilan and Avram first met, abandoned and feverish in a hospital ward, convinced that Tel Aviv has been occupied.
The rest of their history, together and apart, is then only retrospectively revealed over the course of the novel: Ora and Ilan became a couple, while Avram was badly injured and traumatized when he was captured by the Egyptians during his and Ilan's military service; Ilan always felt tremendous guilt and responsibility about what happened, and for a long time he and Ora tended to Avram, who had no one else in his life.
Ora is consumed by the past, practically bursting with it.
To the End of the Land is a paean to maternal love, and much of it devoted to Ora's passion for her boys, beginning with her close to hysterical reaction and desperation in seeing Ofer off to the front (yes, she drives him -- or rather puts Sami in the awful position of driving them -- to the collection point) and continuing with her recollections of Adam's birth and infancy, and then Ofer's.
She prattles on at great length as she and Avram go on their walkabout, but when that isn't enough she also starts recording with pen on paper, discovering:
In fact, Avram had been the true writer and creator -- "From six in the morning until ten at night, every day" -- but his POW experiences "more or less took the pen out of his hand".
Avram props himself up slightly.
"What's good ?"
Grossman builds his story up quite well, filling in background along the way in making an ever-richer portrait of the complex relationship between Ora, Ilan, and Avram, revealing piece after piece that illuminates what was previously presented.
But this is also a book torn in several different directions.
Until she and Avram start their walk Sami is also a significant figure, put in an awkward and awful position when Ora demands he drive her and Ofer to his military posting, then later using Ora to transport an illegal resident's boy who is sick to get medical attention.
That, and the visit to the makeshift medical center where they drop the kid off are nods to the Palestinian issues, but after that these are forgotten; as is, they feel somewhat tacked on, as though Grossman felt obligated to tuck in some scenes of Arabic hardship for a bit of some sort of balance.
Sami reminds her: "Not everything always has to have a story, Ora !" as Grossman makes the clearest demarcation between an us and them that obviously hovers over much of the novel:
"You people," he hisses through the rearview mirror, "you're always looking for a story in everything.
So you'll have it for your telefision show or a movie for your bestivals, not so ?
Ha ? Not so ?"
Ora certainly has reached a stage where she needs to shape the narrative of her life in order to find some hold -- to position herself, as it were, in relationship to the men in her life (and, implicitly, her nation, whose complex identity casts complex shadows on everyone and thing).
Still, even she wonders about her outpouring:
"Do you really want to hear all this, or is it just to make me feel good ?"
Ora's walkabout is, of course, purposeful, but part of that is its very aimlessness: Ora is trying to find herself (and help Avram find himself) also by losing herself.
They do no tread on entirely virgin ground -- there are a few encounters and markers on their way -- but the present is, if not a blank slate a very underwritten one.
Turning constantly to the past allows Grossman to reveal what is behind the characters, but he takes his time doing it -- perhaps too much.
Grossman's meanderings describe rather complex loops and patterns; it's a solid story, but doesn't seem quite sure of what it wants to focus in on, either -- the decision to simply banish Ilan and Adam far abroad so as to keep them from in any way interfering seems a typically extreme solution that Grossman opts for.
And some of what he does revel in, at great length, -- such as Ora's maternal feelings -- can feel like an artificial indulgence, as though he is simply getting carried away by the thrill of what he can do on the page.
To the End of the Land is a robust and often affecting work.
Surprisingly, despite coming in at over five hundred pages, there could easily be more of it: storylines from the past (and present) could well be more developed.
The novel reads quite well, the pacing effective as Grossman shifts between present and memory and slowly adds pieces from the past.
However, the writing, while good, is simply not that good; too often the craftsman rather than the artist is apparent.
The translation, too, isn't entirely fluid: worst are some jarring modern Americanisms in the early Ofer-scenes, exacerbating what are already Grossman's awkward efforts to capture a young man's voice, but there's a lack of final polish throughout.
All in all (and there's a lot to it ...), To the End of the Land is a rich, interesting work -- and, while flawed, certainly worthwhile.
- M.A.Orthofer, 19 September 2010
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To the End of the Land:
Other books by David Grossman under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Israeli author David Grossman (דויד גרוסמן) was born in 1954.
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© 2010 the complete review
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