Book Review: Homesick: A Novel

Review By: 
Bonny V. Fetterman
Homesick: A Novel

Eshkol Nevo’s debut novel, a bestseller in Israel that has garnered international acclaim in translation, presents a distinctively young and fresh image of contemporary Israel. When young lovers Amir and Noa decide to live together, they choose an apartment in Maoz Ziyon—an easy commute for Amir, a psychology student at Tel Aviv University, and for Noa, who studies photography in Jerusalem. They move in and slowly try to figure out a shared life in their first shared home. These young people care about music, art, and sports, have doubts about their career choices, and alternately rejoice in and struggle with this new entity they call “Noaandamir.”

Set shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the novel notes the heavy political climate, with conflicts between religious and secular Jews and terrorist bombings making everyone reach for their cell phones to locate loved ones. But Nevo also does not want us to forget the normal parts of everyday life in Israel, the things that make Israel a vital society. Homesick is first and foremost a novel about relationships.

Amir and Noa befriend a variety of people in their new neighborhood, beginning with Moshe and Sima Zakian, in whose house they’ve rented an apartment (Moshe’s parents, elderly Kurdish Jews, live upstairs). The Zakians are a happily married couple, but soon they are quarreling bitterly, due to pressure from Moshe’s older brother, an Orthodox rabbi, over whether to send their children to a secular or religious school. Across the yard, another family is mourning the death of its elder son in Lebanon; the younger son, 10-year-old Yotam, escapes the silent sadness of his home with frequent visits to Amir and Noa’s apartment to play chess or watch soccer games with Amir.

Meanwhile, Saddiq, a middle-aged Palestinian construction worker, recognizes Moshe and Sima’s house as his childhood home and wonders how he can enter it to look for a family heirloom. He prowls around the neighborhood, at one point terrifying Sima’s mother-in-law, who drops her grocery bags in the street and runs. But when Saddiq subsequently breaks into the house, he is embraced with joy by Moshe’s aged father, Avram, who takes him for his firstborn son, a child who died shortly after his emigration from Kurdistan. As the family frantically summons the police, Saddiq and Avram share a tragicomic moment laden with overtones of “homesickness” for both.

By turns funny, poignant, and deeply humane, Homesick explores quintessential elements of the human psyche—longing, and the capacity of people to connect on an emotional level. This novel does not have a single narrator, but is written in a “polyphonic style,” where the characters tell their own stories in alternating, sequential monologues. It is also one of the first contemporary Israeli novels to include a Palestinian narrative voiced by a Palestinian character. Author Eshkol Nevo was awarded membership in Israel’s Cultural Excellence Foundation in 2008.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.