Book Review: The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

August 18, 2014 books, reviews 0

The People of Forever are Not Afraid

Yael, Avishag and Lea grow up together in a tiny, dusty village in Israel. They attend high school, gossip about boys, and try to find ways to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life. Then at eighteen they are conscripted into the army. Yael trains marksmen, Avishag stands guard watching refugees throw themselves at barbed-wire fences and Lea, posted at a checkpoint, imagines the stories behind the familiar faces that pass by her day after day. All of them live in that single intense second before danger erupts, all of them trying to survive however they can.

Last semester, I watched Scorcese’s Taxi Driver for a seminar at university. I remember my teacher stating that it was one of the movies on which she could base an entire seminar because it is so complex. The People of Forever are Not Afraid reminded me of that. It sometimes has the same feeling of clinical detachment and austerity while being very layered and open to interpretation.

I bought this book at a local bookstore (gasp) when I had some time to kill because I wanted something that didn’t make me feel like I had read it five million times before. A book about Israeli women in the army seemed just the thing. The People of Forever are Not Afraid certainly didn’t disappoint.

The book has an unusual pacing as tension and suspense ebb and flow at seemingly random bursts. Since the cover and the description suggest that the story is about three girls in the army, I was a little thrown at some point in the book because their service ended and there was still much of the story left to read. I think this is a marketing problem since the author clearly states at the end of the book that it’s about young women in Israel rather than young women in the army – although the latter is a big part of the former.

The POV is fairly inconsistent. I don’t usually like multiple POVs much in general, and this was another instance where my expectations didn’t match the story. In the description of the book it states the story is about Yael, Avishag and Lea, so I expected the book to be told from the three protagonist’s POVs. However, the perspective sometimes switches to other (minor) characters throughout the book and, if I recall correctly, even to a whole other kind of narrator. The narrative structure of the book completely falls apart throughout the middle of the book, and then comes back together in the end. I wonder if this was done on purpose to resemble the jarring impact the army had on the young girls’ psyche and their attempts to find back to themselves. At times, the text almost feels like an extension of Avishag’s mind as she keeps guard for hours and hours on end, her mind jumping from this thought to that and back again. Then again, it might just be inexperience in storytelling. I guess that’s part of the beauty of the book for me: it’s all open to interpretation.

I welcome that the author really delves into the dark parts of Lea, Avishag and Yael’s psyche, but it’s often hard to guess why the protagonists behave the way they do, especially considering the ending. Sometimes this adds to the story because it encourages you to think about the womens’ motivations, but other times I felt like there was a wall between me and the characters and no matter how much I tried to break it down I could only ever get a glimpse at the people on the other side through a fissure in the stone. However, there are also moments in the story where the book is raw and honest and gets you to admit that, really, you could be any of these girls. None of them are the same by the end of the book than they were in the beginning, yet they retain their individuality and even expand on it. Once I got over the parts that made the book less accessible to me than other books I have read, I found it to be insightful and the good kind of challenging. What would I do if I were in the same situation? How far would I go? And would I be able to forgive myself afterwards? In my everyday life, I take existential security for granted. The People of Forever are Not Afraid makes me wonder what it would have been like to grow up under very different circumstances.

If you want to read something that feels fresh and you don’t mind some narrative experiments, you should definitely pick this up. The cultural aspect was just as interesting as the storytelling aspects. Even though I had to force myself to keep reading at times due to the capricious pacing and character development, I can recommend this book. It’s certainly not a book for everyone, but I loved it. Or at least I love having read it, which might not be the same thing. If you don’t feel quite that adventurous and you want to be able to actually connect to the characters you read about, you should probably avoid this one. It is a book you will not forget after setting it down, whether that is because of the subject matter, because it’s unusual, or because you’re still trying to figure out what the heck you just read.

I’m giving this book 4.5 out of 5 Cupcakes.


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