When Jonathan Geller is called back to Israel for the funeral of his younger brother Danny, he is forced to confront his own past while trying to unravel the mystery of Danny’s death.
“A House Divided,” by first-time author Noah S. Friedland, begins with this fairly simple premise, but quickly becomes both a loving and unflinching study of Israel’s many contradictions, especially as it relates to the military. Friedland, a Seattle-based technologist, attended Israeli schools until his induction into the Israel Defense Forces in 1979. He clearly has a deep connection to the land and people of Israel, and the novel is often a roman a clef travelogue of this complex country.
Geller is an academic teaching in the United States, an immigrant to Israel living in self-imposed exile after a deadly incident during service in an IDF artillery company. He returns to Israel to attend the funeral of his brother Danny, who has died during an IDF training exercise. His suspicion that there is more to the story is confirmed when a stranger passes him a note, which leads him to his brother’s girlfriend, Michal. When they discover that she received a telephone call from Danny after his official time of death, the chase for answers is on.
Friedland has a sharp eye for detail, and the reader often plays witness to his well-written reverie.
When Geller visits his old neighborhood, the inhabitants “eyed him curiously as he walked by. These people could have been his parents’ old neighbors, newly arrived from anywhere and everywhere, struggling to learn a new language, a new culture. Not much by way of possessions or material things, but unified by a strong desire to build a life in a new place — humble beginnings.”
When the trail takes Geller to a kibbutz, Friedland writes with unmistakable authenticity, “His eyes were drawn down the lane to the meandering Beit She’an road, now no more than a charcoal squiggle on a painter’s easel. He glimpsed the flat roofs of the cannery, mostly hidden by trees, and the truck and tractor depot with its yellow floodlights. The trail ended at a loading dock on the backside of the communal dining hall. Sniffing the humid air, he detected cooking smells tainted with a mélange of lye, rotting garbage, and animal compost.”
It is in these descriptions of Israel and its people that “A House Divided” excels. While the adventure and mystery are interesting and well written, the plot often lurches along via convenient coincidences. This is a minor complaint, however, in what is a confident and engaging first novel.
In the author’s acknowledgements, Friedland stated that writing the book was a 15-year process. Let’s hope we don’t have so long to wait for his sophomore effort.
(Erik Rosen is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.)