In the wake of the Six-Day War, our lives as college-bound preppies seemed puny compared to the glorious achievements of 18-year-old Israeli soldiers. In those days, the experience of our Israeli counterparts was so thoroughly mythologized, their coming- of-age literature always had a formulaic arc: Young recruits went from self-doubt to mature commitment to a mission larger than themselves. Their lives had a sense of purpose that ours, as teens in the diaspora, could never rival.
Times have changed. The lives of the teenage army recruits in Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth), are anything but glorified. The novel’s main protagonists are three 18-year-olds, Yael, Lea and Avishag, all friends from childhood in a northern border town. In the army, Yael expertly trains marksmen, Avishag stands guard and Lea is in the military police, posted at a checkpoint.
Their sequential interior monologues provide the narrative substance of this groundbreaking work. This is a postmodern coming-of-age tale where things are simply described, not judged or bemoaned. Each of their emergent sensibilities is warped by circumstances. Newborn womanhood is weighed down by bullet-proof vests; feminine identity gasps and asphyxiates inside a gas mask. The gifted 25-year-old Boianjiu does not distract us with political debates about what the future must — or must not — hold.
The narrative does not progress in a linear fashion but is structured horizontally. The lives of the three girls are loosely connected across time and space. While seemingly random events are sometimes linked, we are offered no clear plot points. Still, Boianjiu manages an exquisite tension between the eventless and the explosive. Much of the book takes place in the endless present, one whose monotony could at any moment be shattered by deadly violence.
If Boianjiu, a Harvard-educated, Israeli army veteran chose to write her debut novel in English, it may be because the work arose out of a senior thesis and quickly caught the attention of a U.S. literary agent. But the English language also provides a responsive medium for the tweets-like style and blog-speak: The blurted, terse communications of right now seem to take up the space of forever.
We get to know Yael, Avishag and Lea from sensual experience. Our complicity with these young soldiers is earned through tedious sound and blurred sight, itchy skin and soul-sickening smell. We can taste the dry dust of their far-flung hometown; we wish Yael would experiment with more than her bland tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. The tension in the silence of the bored screams louder than sporadic gunshots. The relentless buzzing in these porous psyches makes the reader suspect that the most worrisome occupation may be not of land, but rather of the unguarded territory of teenage minds.
We feel these girls viscerally even as we know their experiences are radically isolating. One day Avishag and her companion take off all their clothes in the watchtower. It is the rough texture of unwashed uniforms on itchy skin rather than a peeling of layers to selfhood that has them undress while on duty, indifferent to the binoculars of the astonished Egyptians across the way.
Dulled by her repetitive duties at a checkpoint for Palestinian laborers, one day, Lea is shocked by the stench arising from the trunk of a car. She discovers this is the smell of terrified women being trafficked across international borders. Lea’s male supervisor waves them on. Her assignment is checking the identities of Palestinian construction workers, not interfering with someone else’s slave trade.
With her eyes glued to the surveillance monitor, the tiny dots remind Avishag of plucked lice eggs lying on bathroom tiles. She complains of blurred vision and we understand that she is afflicted by the fog of war, through which it is not always advisable to see too clearly. One night, after the physical pain of terminating her own pregnancy, Avishag spots the image of a Sudanese refugee running across her screen. Against orders, Avishag reaches out to touch the pixel image and she imagines that the girl, curling up near a fence to escape a barrage of bullets, feels a tender touch on her shivering shoulder.
Thwarted sympathy for the other is also expressed through language. When Lea resists being recruited for the military police, she repeats, “I won’t go.” In her imagination, this is exactly what a Palestinian laborer says repeatedly to his wife when she insists that he go work behind Israeli lines. Yael is recruited, the man becomes a day laborer, and then they meet at the checkpoint, possibly recognizing one another’s stifled humanity. They exchange a few banalities until one day a throat is slit and life goes on as before.
Yael’s recollection of a high school discussion about the Book of Jonah is the novel’s one reference to God and traditional Jewish text. Yael has a dream where Jonah mocks her for thinking that she is “moving somewhere.” She reflects, “He was saying this to me while he himself was trapped inside a whale, trying to escape God like some dumbass.” She empathizes with Jonah’s feeling “like an idiot for telling those people God would kill them only to have God change his mind.” She remembers having difficulty completing the high school exercise, “God killed Jonah’s tree because…”
There is no further probing. We understand that the recruits’ process of moral reasoning has somewhere along the line been deliberately, possibly unavoidably, hijacked.
The power play between occupied and occupier, between officers and trainees inevitably seeps into sexual relations. Yael, a hard-driving weapons trainer, looks forward to being seduced by the trainee she has dominated all day and to having her hair pulled hard in bed. She wonders if the underling who calls her “officer” all day should use her first name when sleeping with her at night.
The three main characters in “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” do not emerge as distinct individuals commanding our sympathies. In tone, outlook and deed, the three girls seem to blend one into the other. Perhaps that homogenization is the whole point, much the way our shared inability to care fully, as Avishag puts it “about someone who is not myself.”
Together, the expedient relationships, mangled emotions, blunted speech and radical loneliness brilliantly construct a disturbing inner landscape. However dazed and constrained, stripped of all political polemic, Boianjiu’s edgy, occasionally humorous prose speaks volumes about the teenage mind. Watching the Sudanese refugee trying to cross to safety in the dark night, Avishag speaks for us all when she exhorts from her guard tower, “Run girl run.” We echo her cry even if we know that chances of escape are slim indeed.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com.