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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Second Person Singular

Sayed Kashua

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To purchase Second Person Singular

Title: Second Person Singular
Author: Sayed Kashua
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 346 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Second Person Singular - US
Exposure - UK
Second Person Singular - Canada
Exposure - India
La deuxième personne - France
Zweite Person Singular - Deutschland
Due in uno - Italia
Segona persona del singular - España
  • Hebrew title: גוף שני יחיד
  • US title: Second Person Singular
  • UK title: Exposure
  • Translated by Mitch Ginsburg

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, solid read, but feels a bit forced

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Haaretz . 1/7/2010 Ayman Sikseck
The LA Times . 17/5/2012 Scott Martelle
NZZ . 26/10/2011 Carsten Hueck
Die Zeit . 22/6/2011 Kristina Maidt-Zinke

  From the Reviews:
  • "The literary achievements of Kashua's third novel -- on the narrative level and, more significantly, on the structural level -- place Second Person Singular on a totally different plane than his previous works. With this book, Sayed Kashua has become one of the most important contemporary Hebrew writers." - Ayman Sikseck, Haaretz

  • "Kashua's dry wit shines throughout (though some of the passages drag), with each of the main characters offering windows into the prejudices and longings of Arabs and Jews. Kashua's strength lies in burrowing into the role of artifice in both of the main characters' constructions of their external personalities. Location here is secondary to dissecting human impulses." - Scott Martelle, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Sayed Kashua mischt Elemente von Kriminal- und Entwicklungsroman. Er beschreibt ergreifend die ambivalente Existenz gebildeter israelischer Palästinenser, ihre widersprüchlichen Wünsche, ihr Dilemma als doppelte Minderheit. (...) In klaren Sätzen vermittelt Kashua die Enttäuschungen, Phantasien und Ängste einer gut ausgebildeten arabischen Mittelschicht in Israel. Er macht in knappen Dialogen und inneren Monologen ihre Zerrissenheit und Einsamkeit deutlich." - Carsten Hueck, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Eigentlich ist das eine traurige Geschichte. Oder eine zynisch-makabre, je nachdem. Für keine dieser Stimmungslagen aber findet Kashua den passenden Ton. Die Figuren bleiben blass und blutleer, die Sprache kommt über einen flachen, faktenbeflissenen Reportagestil nicht hinaus. Gewiss erfährt man eine ganze Menge über die Lebensverhältnisse, die Umgangsformen, die Ernährungsgewohnheiten und die Sorgen arabischer Israelis, auch über die Pflege von Schwerstbehinderten, doch reicht das für einen Roman ?" - Kristina Maidt-Zinke, Die Zeit

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:

       Second Person Singular moves back and forth between two parallel stories, longer sections alternating between the story of a lawyer and that of a younger student until the final section, in which the shorter chapters alternate more quickly between the two as the narrative threads finally converge.
       The sections and chapters about the lawyer, presented by an omniscient narrator, refer to him only as 'the lawyer'; the other sections and chapters are presented in the first-person, by a young man whose name is eventually, but not immediately, revealed. Not surprisingly, identity is a central issue in the novel. Both of the main characters are Arabs living in Israel, and much of the novel revolves around how they allow their Arabic identity in a largely Jewish environment in Jerusalem to define them (or not).
       The lawyer is a successful criminal defense lawyer whose clientele is mainly Arabic; he has cleverly positioned himself to best advantage between the communities. When the novel starts the lawyer has essentially already redefined himself and his identity, having found his place in (Israeli) society; he no longer really has to work to secure it, merely to refine it. He does have an image to maintain, so he's concerned about appearances and the like -- the car he drives, the sushi he serves his guests -- and he works hard at that. With a wife and two young children, he is also domestically established.
       On the other hand, the young man's story is very much a chronicle of someone trying to find himself. He graduated with a degree in social work from Hebrew University, but eventually goes to a leading Israeli art school, Bezalel. Not entirely rootless -- he revisits the Arabic town where his mother still lives -- he nevertheless undergoes a process of much more radical transformation, drifting -- for a while he doesn't even have a room of his own -- until he settles on what he wants to become, which involves not just an entirely new direction (art school rather than social work) but an even more fundamental change.
       The two characters' stories are almost entirely separate for much of the novel, with only a note the lawyer finds in a used copy of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata linking them -- at first hardly at all, but ultimately leading to their paths crossing. The few lines in Arabic are clearly written in the lawyer's wife's hand and, based on what she wrote there, the lawyer immediately suspects she must be having an affair. The lawyer's overreaction here (and his refusal or inability to confront his wife about it) are problematic for the novel: there are all kinds of possible explanations for the note and its content, but the lawyer can imagine only one -- and goes to extremes to get at the root of it.
       The young man's journey also includes some hard-to-credit turns, but is also considerably more creative and intriguing (and certainly gripping, from the undeveloped film the young man finds in a camera to the steps he begins to take).
       Early on the lawyer and his wife are entertaining other successful Arab-Israeli professionals, where:

     The lawyer knew, as did everyone present, that they all merely gave the impression of being educated. They had all come a long way, each in their own field, but in their hearts they knew that they were lacking in comparison to their Jewish colleagues. There was no changing the fact that they were all members of the first generation of educated Arabs in Israel.
       The lawyer is keenly aware of his lack of familiarity with more general culture -- he simply did not grow up in an environment where books were read, classical music listened to, etc. -- and he still works at acquiring that -- hence The Kreutzer Sonata (and, amusingly enough, the next book he turns to is Perec's Life A User's Manual -- which he's impressed by because: "the Frenchman who'd written the book was so important that he'd had a planet named in his honor" (presumably referring to 2817 Perec)). The younger man is also a first-generation Israeli-educated Arab, but he chooses a different tack in assimilation.
       Second Person Singular deals with interesting questions of identity, assimilation, and appearance, and Kashua tells a pretty good story -- the novel moves along at a good pace, and even with the unrealistic elements is quite gripping. Still, it all feels a bit workmanlike, the didactic effort to convey something too obvious. It's a pretty good read, but in too much of it Kashua is simply trying too hard (and letting that show).

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 January 2013

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Second Person Singular: Reviews: Sayed Kashua: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Sayed Kashua (سيد قشوع סייד קשוע) was born in 1975.

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