Friday, November 10, 2017

Book Review: "Sadness is a White Bird" by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Oh, wow, this book was so gorgeous and moving and amazing! (Sorry I'm not more enthusiastic about it.)

Jonathan has just turned 19 and is serving in the Israeli army, a responsibility he has taken very seriously. Yet when Sadness is a White Bird begins, Jonathan is in a military prison, telling his story as a letter of sorts to one of his best friends. But how did someone so eager to serve his country wind up in prison, doubting whether military action against the Arabs is the right thing to do?

Although he was born in Israel, Jonathan and his family lived in Pennsylvania for a number of years before he persuaded them to return to their homeland so he could serve in the army, as required of all Israeli citizens. Jonathan's grandfather, who was from the Greek city of Salonica (also known as Thessaloniki), saw his entire community wiped out by the Holocaust, and through his sorrow, played a role in the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948, so Jonathan sees military service as a family inheritance.

When he meets brother and sister Laith and Nimreen, twin children of one of his mother's Palestinian friends, the three become immediately inseparable. Through their weekly adventures, they talk, share poems (and joints), and Jonathan begins to see what life in Israel is like for Arabs. While his first reaction is to defend his country's efforts to protect itself from militant Arabs, Nimreen and Laith try to explain Palestinians' allegiance to the same country, yet view their treatment by Israelis as persecution not protection. It's not long before Jonathan wonders if he really believes in the country he will be defending, whether it is possible to love your country yet question its motives at the same time.

The story weaves back and forth between Jonathan's time with Nimreen and Laith and the growing love he has for both of him, and his time in the military, leading up to the actions which land him in prison. Nimreen and Laith don't understand why Jonathan is still so adamant about serving in the military when he has begun to see that blind allegiance is not the only path, and it strains their relationship. Jonathan is torn between pride in his country and the comradeship he finds in the army, and knowing one day he may come in direct conflict with people dear to Laith and Nimreen.

This is an absolutely beautiful and poignant book, in part a coming-of-age novel, in part a story of self-discovery, as well as a story about how our idealism and naivete change as we grow older. This is a story about longing and belonging, about how sometimes there is a gap between what is expected and what is right. Moriel Rothman-Zecher does such a wonderful job taking you along Jonathan's path of self-discovery, feeling the things he feels, and he keeps you in suspense as to why he is in prison, and whether the letter he is writing will ever reach its intended audience.

I absolutely loved this book and found it very surprising at times. The characters are so memorable, and Rothman-Zecher's storytelling is so lyrical and beautiful. It will be some time before I get this one out of my head, not that I want to.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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