BOOK REVIEW: Young Israeli soldiers are as wary of boredom as they are of their hostile neighbors. Shani Boianjiu's debut novel makes apparent that this is for good reason.
For soldiers in the Israeli army, the preferred methods of combating boredom include sun-tanning, having sex and shooting grenades at abandoned Subarus. If one is feeling particularly restless under the Middle Eastern sun, the injection into one's forearm of an IV drip filled with ice water might be considered a suitable means to cool off and induce a time-passing nap. Such is the daily life depicted in "The People of Forever Are Not Afraid" (Hogarth Press, 338 pages, $24), Shani Boianjiu's novel about three young, and often bored, Israeli soldiers. The book follows Yael, Avishag and Lea, childhood friends from a town whose economic center is a factory "that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that can make airplanes."
We meet the girls in their final year of high school, and follow them as they serve their country by guarding army bases, patrolling the Egyptian border and training younger soldiers to do the same. Quickly they find the tedium involved in military life overwhelming: "There was still time, all this time, hovering about them." One soldier's assignment is to work 11-hour shifts that consist solely of staring at a red telephone, waiting for it to ring. Usually it doesn't.
The novel resonates with considerable power, because all the absurd little activities these women devise to keep busy are set against a backdrop of perpetual war. While Boianjiu mostly keeps Israel's conflicts (both internal and international) confined to subtext, it isn't forgotten that this country truly believes its antagonistic neighbors pose an existential threat. Nor are the problems created by Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories ignored. Lea is tasked with scrutinizing the employment permits of Palestinian construction workers who cross her border checkpoint each day to build Israeli homes. While security-based checkpoints "showed that we would not let our lives be cheap ... my checkpoint only showed that we wanted our homes to be cheap, and that the Palestinians' anger could be bought."
Of course, the checkpoints exist because of the pervasive and very real fear that these workers might be carrying explosives. But "People of Forever" avoids melodrama; it is a book of nuance and smart anti-climax. The smugglers here aren't concealing bombs, but bootlegged DVDs.
This isn't the constantly detonating Israel of American newspaper headlines. Actually, the country portrayed is a much more interesting and harrowing place. Its citizens and soldiers, we see, live in quiet expectation of calamity -- they are waiting for it. Waiting, as always, breeds boredom, but lurking beneath this boredom is a force more perilous than mere doldrums. The unoccupied time breeds pure, palpable, unendurable fear. So it's no wonder Boianjiu's young women are warier of this intangible enemy -- time, and its empty passing -- than of the somewhat more obvious threats at Israel's checkpoints and borders.
Max Ross, a former contributing writer for the Rake, has written for the Boston Globe and American Short Fiction.