Family life can be like a journey—an expedition filled with delights and sorrow, a mixture of monotony and surprises, with a few unexpected side trips. In David Grossman’s amazing new novel, To the End of the Land, he combines literal travel with the passages of life; as the main characters hike around Israel, they renew their friendship through deep conversation, relating stories that range from the personal to the mundane and revealing a few closely held secrets.
Ora, newly divorced, is planning a camping trip through the Galilee with her younger son, Ofer. When he rejoins the army, she panics and decides to take the trip on her own, rationalizing, somewhat fantastically, that if she can’t be informed of his death, then he can’t die. At the last minute, she coerces her reclusive friend Avram into accompanying her. As they wander the hills, Ora keeps up a steady monologue, describing Ofer from birth to adulthood, in the hopes that maintaining a laser-like focus on domestic minutiae will keep him alive.
The background to this conversation is a complicated history among three friends. Ora, Avram and Ora’s ex-husband Ilan met as teenagers when they were all hospitalized with a debilitating illness. The attraction that both men felt for Ora tested their friendship, and their relationships were further tried when Avram was held as a POW in Egypt and brutally tortured after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Although Ora and Ilan eventually married and had children, they continued to care for Avram until he cut himself off from their family, refusing to meet their two sons and working only the most menial of jobs. As Ora recounts the many stories of her family life, Avram is able to make a kind of human connection that he has long shunned and feels himself regaining some of the creative spirit he thought he’d lost.
Grossman contrasts the tragic consequences of war with the soundtrack of everyday motherhood in such a way that the surreality of life in contemporary Israel is placed in high relief. Politics infiltrates everything, and the toll it takes on Ora’s family, from her sons’ enlistment to the ambivalence she feels she must hide from them, is almost too much for her to bear.
Those who are already familiar with Grossman may know that he lost his own son in the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Though much of this book was written before that date, it is impossible to read To the End of the Land without wondering how that loss may have affected his point of view. Always a writer of provocative technique and a fearless approach to life’s most profound questions, Grossman digs deeply here, with powerful results.