Saturday, March 3, 2018

Translate this book | Amilam by Hila Arazi-Hatav

I've got to say, this one surprised me. I bought it years ago at Hebrew Book Week, I think to complete a 1+1 sort of deal, something purchased in the early days of my WIT awakening. It languished on my shelves until now, and honestly I don't think I ever really processed what the book was supposed to be about. It existed, barely, at the corner of my awareness. But TGBBBOT means that I'm reading a lot more "forgotten" titles from my shelves, and so it came to be that I read Hila Arazi-Hatav's Amilam. And liked it a lot.

This is a novel split into two voices, but they're rather surprising ones at that. The narration begins with Leah, mother of two, whose life feels like it's beginning to fray at the edges. Leah's husband, Yoel, is on a prolonged business trip after months of difficult unemployment, hoping to find redemption at a foreign conference. Leah narrates her troubled thoughts to the husband that isn't there, increasingly exhausted by the strain of her mother's Alzheimer's and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy. Thrown into the mix is her older daughter Noa, the second narrator, who seems to also be slipping off the grid lately. Noa disappears for hours, is distracted at school, and seems disconnected from reality.

But as Noa's narration begins to match her mother's, it becomes clear that Noa is not simply a lazy, delinquent 12-year old, rather she is singularly concerned with keeping her grandmother healthy so that the "cousins" from Paris - twin brothers, one of whom molested Noa several times on their previous visit - have no reason to come. Noa's fear for her grandmother Elsa's health leads her to take on increasingly drastic measures, from having her best friend pretend to be Elsa's long-dead son (Noa's uncle) in order to convince Elsa to take her medication, to grinding up pills and mixing them in with the sugar, to coming up with plans for a "trap" for whichever of the brothers it is that might come into Noa's bedroom at night.

The tone, unsurprisingly, switches fairly drastically between Noa and Leah, though the stakes remain high in both cases. Noa, unlike her mother, is not unraveling quite as much as she is fighting a losing war. Her concerns jump from caring for her grandmother to whether her class will win the soccer game against the other class. She misses her father, vaguely, but seems to have no comprehension of communicating with her parents (and from Leah's end, it becomes clear that Leah and Yoel have little idea how to communicate with Noa). For Leah, as much as things are crumbling, she manages to keep a fairly firm grasp. Yet on the inside, she describes a sense of loss and confusion, abandonment and hopelessness.

The writing style for both narrators is simple, though in different ways. Noa thinks in simple terms, rarely getting too wrapped up in her own thoughts, but often looping back to the same concepts and thoughts. Leah is the opposite, imagining herself talking to her too-absent husband (and though this business trip is fairly short, it seems to represent a wider gap in her marriage that she simply doesn't know how to explain), wrapped up intensely in a widening range of contemplations. Both styles feel very conversational without being simplified. Later in the book, as Noa begins to narrate semi-fictional accounts of Elsa's past to her, Noa also switches to narrating to her grandmother. The shift leads to a slight change in style, accordingly, with the greater complexity suggesting that Noa has absorbed some of how these stories were told to her.

It's difficult for me to say what it is that works so well about Amilam. It's not that this is the most original story, yet it feels fresh. It's not the most original writing technique, yet it ends up working remarkably well. Amilam didn't win any awards and I imagine has largely been forgotten by Israeli readers. Yet I liked it, a lot. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I just recently lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer's and pieces of Leah/Noa's experiences rang too true. Part of it may have to do with the way the book made me feel very strongly for both Leah and Noa; by the end of the book, I just wanted to hug both of them and yell at them "TALK TO EACH OTHER".

This is a novel that takes place over an intense week, but it digs deep into its characters. It's the sort of book that has carved out a little corner in my mind, and I've been turning it over over the past day since I finished reading it. I think it could very well do the same for other readers.

2 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting! Is it available in English? (As much as I enjoy being able to read the Hebrew on the cover, my Hebrew would not extend to being able to read the book!)

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    1. Alas, no... And in fact, I think it'd be a bit difficult to find it in Israeli stores at all, since it was never a huge bestseller and turnover in Israel is very fast. It's also the author's only novel, so definitely one of those that flew under the radar!

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