And They Say Russian Roulette
I was on the landline the whole night talking to Avishag. All of the other girls stayed at Lea’s party. She made people stay, even after they heard something was up with Dan. I didn’t care about that. And I didn’t care that my mom could hear me or that my sister could hear me or that my dad could hear me. At first the thing that was up was that Dan hit his head so Avishag was worried, and then the thing was that he was badly injured in the head and in the hospital but Avishag’s mom told her not to go, and then the thing was that he was accidentally shot in the head, and then the final thing was that he and a couple of classmates went to the cellular tower hill and they called this girl, or that, but then they played Russian roulette because no one answered. I mean, no one but those in the town had cell reception and almost everyone was at Lea’s party, and that was the thing. At six in the morning the thing was that Dan had died.
But I don’t believe any of these rumors. I think he just went up that hill and blew his fucking brains out all by himself.
Set primarily in a small Israeli village near the Lebanese border, Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid charts the emotional deconstruction of three young women—Yael, Avishag, and Lea—from 2006 to 2012. The narrative explores their lives in the period before the Second Lebanon War (July 12 to September 8, 2006), as caustic, disaffected teenagers in a high school made up of caravan classrooms, to conscription in the Israeli army, the conflict itself, and the aftermath and how it impacts their lives.
The novel is divided into three tonally distinct parts: in the first part, we’re introduced to the three friends. We learn their histories, witness arguments and crushes that either drove them apart or brought them closer together. Boianjiu offers early glimpses of trauma still to come through Avishag’s brother, Dan, and how military service changed him, turned him into something less than he’d previously been. Their families are all uniquely strained, which is reflected in their differing personalities—Yael, the most even-handed and flirtatious of the three; Avishag, who seems to be losing her grip on reality, feeling more and more alone with each day that passes; Lea, who bears the nickname “princess” and is the only one of the three that could be classified as “spoiled”.
In the novel’s second, and most captivating part, Boianjiu introduces a host of new characters, each of them peripheral in some way to Yael, Avishag, or Lea. We see, through their eyes and those surrounding them, the gradual acceptance of their respective military placements: Avishag posted as a guard near the Egypt-Israeli border; Yael trained as a marksman and weapons expert who, despite her position, never loses the more flirtatious aspects of her personality; and Lea, posted against her desires, as a member of the Israeli military police. It is in this part that Boianjiu expertly and realistically dismantles each of her three protagonists—in startling ways, leading to sometimes unexpected and disturbing results.
The final and shortest part serves almost as an extended epilogue—though their stories have not come to a close, their lives have in many ways climaxed, and the three women, together again, are faced with accepting what their experiences in the military had done to them—and what they had done, to themselves and others, as a result.
Structurally, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is an ever-widening lens. The first part is told entirely from first-person perspectives, with each chapter shifting voice between the three young protagonists. Though Avishag and Lea are both given chapters of their own to help develop their personalities, the strongest and most accessible voice is Yael’s. This feels intentional, as Boianjiu expands the novel’s scope in the second part, shifting the perspective from first to third person for all but Yael. This serves three purposes: first, to further cement Yael as the medium, the voice of our entry into their worlds; second, to illustrate, by pushing them away from the reader, limiting their internal dialogue, how service and the incidents that happen along the way are separating the three, both from their youths and from one another; and third, to play upon the reader’s expectations—by forcing us to be removed from characters we’d come to know, to some small degree, and to look upon them again as strangers in the making. In the final part, it’s only Yael’s internal voice we are partially privy to, and though she has changed, it is how they have changed as a unit, as friends, that becomes most apparent.
The transformations achieved along the way are earned, and accentuated through subtle, confident means: the change in language as Lea, having experienced a certain amount of authority and control, experiences maturity, but also, through things witnessed during her time as a member of the military police, finds herself capable of malevolent, vengeful acts; how Avishag and her father swap seats while he tries to teach her to drive, while their shared history reveals a gulf that has always existed, with Avishag, at different points in her life, occupying two separate sides of the same gulf while her father seems forever trapped in the middle, unable to fully comprehend the degree to which they have, symbolically, swapped ages.
Shani Boianjiu was herself a member of the Israeli Defense Force for two years. This background is certainly visible in the quality and concision of both language used between the girls, and the descriptions of weaponry, bases, and the girls’ small village. The world presented is wholly believable, yet neither the aspects of the military introduced, nor the politics behind the conflict, ever threaten to overwhelm the narrative or distract the reader from Yael, Avishag, Lea, and their journey. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is an engrossing, searing read. These three friends took me by surprise in ways I’d not expected. Highly recommended.