Armies find new soldiers amongst the young. In many countries, teenagers enter service right out of high school. Still growing --- physically, emotionally and intellectually --- they guard borders, defend against attack and go to war. Young men in the armed forces or at war is a theme that has been explored by many great authors. In THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID, Shani Boianjiu’s protagonists are three young women serving their mandatory time in the Israeli army. Avishag, Yael and Lea all grew up together in a tiny Israeli border town, but their time in the army most clearly illustrates what makes them similar and what makes each unique.
"Exploring themes of friendship, ennui, sex, violence, family, nationalism and trauma, Boianjiu’s debut is an ambitious novel told in a unique voice."
Boianjiu’s first novel is often darkly funny, but it is mostly just dark. In the town where Avishag, Yael and Lea grow up, close to the Lebanese border, the threat of war hangs in the air. From the wars that founded and expanded modern Israel to the skirmishes and violence that continue to shake it, the girls learn Israeli history through its bloodshed, damage and loss. They know their own time in the army is inevitable and can do little to influence their assignments or stations. Each of them, given a different job and different responsibilities, responds differently, yet still their experiences are far from singular. In the tension and boredom they find during service, they experiment with identity, sexuality and fidelity. They must be tough but feel vulnerable; they must be prepared for the worst but cannot manage to stay focused. They witness horrors and are rarely moved to act for change.
THE PEOPLE OF FOREVER ARE NOT AFRAID follows the three through their time in the army and into the years just beyond their service, but there are plenty of helpful flashbacks and memories along the way. We know a bit about Avishag’s brother’s suicide and a bit about Yael’s mother’s own time in the service. But the narrative is not traditional. Boianjiu’s writing is post-modern: slippery and flexible, the characters’ perspectives are not quite unreliable but almost so. The personalities of the three girls and their biographies are distinct, but their voices melt together and it takes work to keep them separated as you read. Other characters appear and disappear quickly, and time moves forward and sometimes backwards in fits and starts. The young women are being moved into adulthood and are forced to grow up in the army, but when they emerge from service two years later, they are no better equipped to navigate adult life than they were before.
Towards the end of the novel, the three main characters reunite as reservists but find themselves held hostage by other Israeli soldiers and tortured. It is a strange section of the book and only one of many culminations of violence in the story. Often Boianjiu’s tale becomes absurd and often bogged down. On the one hand, it feels like not much happens, but on the other hand it feels like some frightening event, big or small, is always taking place. Perhaps that is her point: war is boring and thrilling, dull and dangerous all at once. And, even without combat, the young people of Israel are living in war-like conditions.
Natives of Israel are called sabras after the plant that grows there: like the desert plant, they are known to be tough and even prickly on the outside, but soft and tender on the inside. Boianjiu captures this idea with Avishag, Yael and Lea, all three hurt and hurting but full of energy, possibility and life. Despite its flaws, this is a challenging and heart-wrenching coming-of-age novel. It is compelling throughout, and Boianjiu’s plotting and pacing are sure to get better and better with time. Exploring themes of friendship, ennui, sex, violence, family, nationalism and trauma, Boianjiu’s debut is an ambitious novel told in a unique voice.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on October 5, 2012
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid