It begins, it seems, at 23. You turn over to the back cover of the book you’re reading and find that the author is your age, or not much older. Sure, the world has its S.E. Hintons and similarly young literary prodigies, but at 23 we’re the adults who are steadily getting older than young Hollywood and creeping up towards writers who have had the time to gain buckets of talent. Sure enough, midway through Shani Boianjiu’s powerful debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, I noticed in her bio that she was born in 1987, just two years before me. It is a hulking book, full of the full lives of three girls – Yael, Avishag, and Lea – as they complete their mandatory military service in Israel. Everything about it is full, their histories and their relationships and their voices. This book contains everything from the traditions of magic realism to war stories, as realized as the three lives within it.
But something else begins at 23, too. Now that the writers behind the strongest forces of literature are a part of my own generation, there is an added pressure to connect, to get it on a level that other readers might not. Yael, Avishag, and Lea are, after all, like young women anywhere: their time spent in the military is dotted with the same conversations that peppered by college years, and they braid one another’s hair and gossip about boys as if there weren’t missiles falling outside their base. There is an alienation and embarrassment in not accessing what they go through, because there’s no Palestine to my Israel, as it were; I have no ceaseless, unsubstantiated enemy, no patriotic duties to my country. And so on some level, seeing the three girls emerge from their years of lost innocence is like seeing what my life could have been through purely geographical coincidences.
But right when I decide I can view The People of Forever through that lens of semi-relatable young womanhood, it all changes. The perspectives switch and I’m left with the close-third-person narration of a sandwich shop staff or a two-page diversion chronicling a man’s trip to a brothel. We zoom into and out of the lives of the three women, jump occasionally to their relatives and ancestors and classmates and crazy neighbors. It is hectic and dense, and without the book’s title as a collective guide, I would have no way of accessing this multitude. Sometimes I had to learn to let the stories fill me instead of trying to reach out and grasp them as they paraded by so loosely or tightly bound together. And that’s a little embarrassing at first, when you feel like you should align with the characters and their lives. It’s a frustrating learning process.
There is a violent passage in the book that takes place at a military base (one of many), after which the three women try to decide if what has just happened to them is interesting or not. That was never my doubt. Instead, I am left wondering if what I have extracted is meaningful or not – and though unnameable, the feeling I am left with is one with its own gravity. It is perhaps made all the more meaningful by the fact that I am not capable of this book – that there is something in it that eludes me. Boianjiu, unlike so many of her contemporaries, doesn’t seem to keep anything out of our grasp intentionally, but has instead created such a world that we only select so much of it to absorb.
So did I just review a book not knowing how on earth to attempt to review it? Did I make any impression upon you to read The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, or have I scared you off the idea entirely? I hope not. I hope someone can read it and tell me what they felt, I hope all of you can, because this novel will impact us most when experienced in tandem, just as we only know by the context of friends’ faces to fear or ignore every explosion we hear.