According to Goodreads, Jonathan (or Yonatan) is “preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.” This novel is told in the form of a letter to one of the Palestinians — the brother Laith — while Jonathan is in military prison and reflects on how his life changed after he met Laith and his twin sister Nimreen.
This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, for several reasons. First, I fully acknowledge how important this book is, particularly if people want to understand the types of dilemma that progressive leaning Israelis go through when trying to reconcile themselves to the realities of the country they love, which doesn’t always act honorably towards their minority citizenry. There are sections in this book that were very difficult to read, especially because I know how truthful they were. However, I also know that those same depicted incidents weren’t (and still aren’t) the whole story, and thankfully, Rothman-Zecher does include some passages that point this out. Despite that, what worries me is that some people might gloss over or even ignore the more positive counter-stories and focus only on the negative ones. I know that sounds a bit vague, but I really don’t want to get into any specifics. Leave it to suffice that I had to stop reading this novel about half the way through because I felt that there was too much bias on one side portrayed here, and that depressed me. In fact, I almost gave up on finishing the book, but someone I trust convinced me to go back and finish it, and I’m glad I did.
This doesn’t mean this still isn’t a poignant book, because it is. However, there are several sections in the second half of the book that mitigate some of the more demoralizing parts in the first half, so it didn’t feel like this novel was a type of one-sided propaganda. Even so, one of the other reasons why I had a hard time with this novel was how disjointed it all felt. Rothman-Zecher writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, that can be very confusing, particularly when he brings the past and the present together without warning. Some of the timeline mixtures do get certain prefaces, but even with these, there were still times when found it difficult to understand what was happening, and when these events were taking place. Perhaps some of this disorder could have been solved had Rothman-Zecher substituted some of the first-person letter to Laith with sections that used a different literary mechanic.
That said, I must admit that Rothman-Zecher does have a way with words and I believe him to be a very talented writer. I found this to be a very lyrical work of fiction, which is highly poetic at times and not just because he quotes some beautiful lines by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (including from “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies,” one line of which is the title of this novel), as well as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (not my favorite, but that’s beside the point). The overall atmosphere that Rothman-Zecher succeeds in giving us here is one that I can best describe as being a frenzied dream, which is generally effective, if a touch exaggerated at times. In fact, there are many places in this book where Rothman-Zecher’s language is so evocative, you’ll want to re-read them, just to savor their beauty, even when they describe something distasteful or ugly. All of this fully enhances the feeling of not knowing how to cope with such deeply conflicting emotions, which I believe is the essence of what Rothman-Zecher was trying to portray here. For this alone, Rothman-Zecher deserves kudos, and I still recommend reading this book, although I’m afraid the drawbacks I mentioned above force me to give this book only three and a half stars out of five.
Atria Books released “Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher on February 13, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.