2005, 334 p.
It’s a commonplace but true that one of the best things about being in a bookgroup- apart from the friendships you make with fellow readers- is that you read books that you wouldn’t normally read. Come to think of it, one of the worst things about being in a bookgroup is, too, that you read books you wouldn’t normally read- and often for very good reason.
But in this case, I simply hadn’t heard of this book or the writer. Edna Mayza, apparently, is a well-known Israeli playwright. The narrator of the story is Ilan Ben Nathan, a 48-year-old astrophysicist who works at the Technion (university) in Haifa. His wife, Naomi is twenty years younger and he is besotted, possessive and obsessive about this wife that he can scarcely believe he has landed. So insecure is he that he becomes (quite rightly) convinced that she is having an affair and it dominates his every word and action with her. You know that it’s not going to end well when he tracks down her lover, who is, perversely, an older man like he is, and he confronts him. I shall say no more. Think Woody Allen, think of suffocation and close-up, minute scrutiny and that’s Ilan: nerd on the outside, screaming heap of obsessions and fears on the inside.
It is striking that this book written by a playwright has such a distinctive, breathless present-tense narrative style where the dialogue is reported as part of very long, run-on sentences that extend sometimes even over pages. It’s just as anxiety-provoking and suffocating as Ilan is, and it works brilliantly once you get used to it. Here’s an example:
When I get home in the evening I find Naomi sitting at her desk…Her movements seem jumpy, I can’t get her to meet my eyes, she immediately offers to make me supper and I say that I’ve already eaten at the Technion. She asks with a glassy look, what do you want to eat, I say again, more slowly, I’ve already eaten Naomi, and she asks, should I defrost a steak for you? I stand there and wait for her to come back to me, and after moving restlessly to and fro she pulls herself together, faces me without looking at me, and asks, is anything wrong, and I repeat in the same tone, is anything wrong, and now she almost looks at me and asks in a different tone, is anything wrong, and I saw, nothing’s wrong, why should anything be wrong, I’m simply trying to explain to you that I’ve already eaten, and now that I’ve finally caught her attention she understands, and she kisses me lightly and says that in that case she’ll carry on working…
As I said, the writing does take a bit of getting used to, but it also draws you completely into Ilan’s world view. I was interested to see that the book has been made recently into an Israeli film called Naomi . At first I wondered how such an interior form of narrative would translate onto the screen, but when I think about it, for the reader, Ilan’s narrative makes you an observer only- his consciousness does all the work for you. Often watching a film is a receptive act too, because you are not participating in the conversation yourself, but watching and listening to it from the outside. So perhaps it’s not so strange that a playwright would create such a text after all.
I can’t remember having read any books set in present-day Israel. There’s no writing for an international audience here at all: it is as local as a Helen Garner book is for Melburnians. I found myself curious about the position of Arabic people in Israel (are they the same as Palestinians?) and was rather surprised to find that Galilee was a desert spot with weekend rentals (wasn’t there a Sea of Galilee?) There were lots of restaurants and apartments, and I never did quite make a mental picture of where Naomi’s lover lived- there is mention of a red plastic curtain and I summoned up a picture of a red curtain covering a makeshift shack in a slum against a cliff face, whereas my fellow-bookgroupers saw abandoned tenement buildings. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the movie.
And I’ll make a point of hunting it down too, because this is a terrific book: suffocatingly, insistently compelling and shot through with black humour.
My rating: 8.5/10 (maybe even a 9!)
Sourced from: Council of Adult Education
Read because: it was the November book for my bookgroup.
And as an aside, it’s called Love Burns in America. Can’t really see why the name change, I must admit.