Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of Strangers with the Same Dream by Alison Pick

This book begins with a lie. They said she killed herself, that hers was “the first suicide.” She has a story to tell and we, the readers, are “the chosen people” who will hear this story.

This is the enigmatic opening of Strangers with the Same Dream by Alison Pick (Knopf Canada, August 2017), a novel set in Palestine in the 1920s. A group of halutzim—pioneers—have come to claim the land not out of religious destiny, but as fulfillment of the Zionist dream. Haunted by secrets and tragedies, they are challenged with establishing a kibbutz in the barren north of what will become, a generation later, the Jewish state.

First, we meet Ida who wants to build Eretz Yisrael in her beloved father’s memory. She strives “to become a new person” suited to her new life on the kibbutz. But things don’t go as planned. “Was this Eretz Yisrael?” she thinks. “She had been promised—had believed so fervently—that they were making something new, but instead, everything was falling to pieces.”

Next, we meet, the group’s quick-on-the-trigger leader. Older than the other halutzim, David has prior experience in settling the land. As a result of his previous efforts fighting off the Bedouins, drought, black clouds of locust, malaria, and broken farm plows, “the whole show was up and running.” Yet, chased by personal failures, David is forced to move on and start again.

And then there is Hannah, David’s wife. She must forego the principles of motherhood and adhere to the decisions of the young kibbutz. Her children “belonged to them all.” David says to her, “We agreed in the meeting that we wouldn’t start having children until after Yom Kippur.” Pregnancy leave is not possible as “We need every hand in the fields.”

As for the novel’s first sentence, the suggestion that a lie accompanies the story may also refer to the kibbutz itself. Far from being the ultimate utopia they envisioned, the kibbutz offers no escape from struggles and infighting, from infidelity and jealousy. Settling the land is far more difficult than what the halutzim had imagined.

“What chutzpah they had at the beginning, to believe the revival of a homeland was something they could accomplish,” David thinks.

The author is a masterful storyteller and her narrative is told in an innovative way. The language is rich, the characters believable. This page-turning drama, marked by pathos and a portrayal of the frailty of human nature, culminates in an unexpected ending that satisfactorily ties together the dreams, and nightmares, of the young settlers. Settlers who, for us, are no longer strangers.

Alison Pick is the author of three acclaimed volumes of poetry. Her first novel, The Sweet Edge (2005), was a Globe and Mail “Best Book.” Her second novel, Far to Go (2010), was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and won the Canadian Jewish Award for Fiction. Her internationally acclaimed memoir, Between Gods (2005), relates the story of the author’s recovering her true identity as a Jew. Strangers with the Same Dream is her third novel.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

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