ON AUGUST 12, 2006, in the waning hours of the second Lebanon war, Israeli Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, still a couple weeks shy of his twenty-first birthday, was killed — his tank struck by a Hizballah missile. Two days earlier, Uri’s father David Grossman had joined with other prominent writers in publicly demanding an end to what they judged an increasingly senseless confrontation.
During his son’s military service, Grossman, incontrovertibly among Israel’s most brilliant writers, had been feverishly at work on his latest novel, published this fall in English under the title To the End of the Land. “At the time,” Grossman said, “I had the feeling—or rather, a wish—that the book I was writing would protect him.” After Uri’s death, Grossman completed the book, returning to it, he said, as “a way of fighting against the gravity of grief…. a way of choosing life.”
The book, conceived under the spell of a kind of presentiment of grief, failed as talisman and safeguard, but rapturously succeeds as art. To the End of the Land is Grossman’s most expansive, fully realized novel yet—and one that answers the promptings of usually unspoken Israeli anxieties.
Its story proceeds along simple lines. In the year 2000, Ora (the name in Hebrew means light) reluctantly takes her twenty-one year-old younger son Ofer to a military staging area. During his three years of service in the West Bank, Ofer had manned a checkpoint at the Tapuach junction, lived in a pillbox facing Jenin, patrolled the kasbah in Nablus and the alleyways of Hebron. Now he has volunteered for one last operation, presumably to root out terrorists. Ora — approaching fifty and recently separated from her husband of twenty years — experiences her son’s decision as a betrayal “of the one and only man who had always been loyal to her.” She relents, but not before questioning herself: “why is it that I’m loyal to them, to the ones sending him there … more than to my own motherhood?”
Such misgivings soon darken into foreboding. As Ora and Ofer drive up to the meeting point, Grossman writes, “she turns back to look at the snake of vehicles, and the scene is almost celebratory, excitable, a huge, colorful parade full of life: parents and brothers and girlfriends, even grandparents, bringing their loved ones to the campaign, the event of the season. In every car sits a young boy, the first fruits, a spring festival that ends with a human sacrifice.” When they arrive, Ora reflects on what the incessant conflict confiscates. She knows from watching her older son, who completed his service, that even when the boys come back, “they don’t really come back. Not like they were before. And that the boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized—lost to himself, too.” (Throughout the novel, and with considerable ingenuity, Grossman asks the reader to see Israeli military machismo through the eyes of a mother.) Ora is given to little eruptions of hysteria, and during certain outbursts — she thinks of them as her “left-wing Tourette’s attacks" — she can’t help but register bitter resentment at Israel’s political leaders: “all those people who razed her life, who keep nationalizing another one of her childre...