I’ve never read anything from Emuna Alon until this week. I’ve actually read very little by Israeli writers. But I was lucky enough to have a neighbor with a copy of Emuna Alon’s latest book House on Endless Waters. Knowing I’m a big reader, he asked if I wanted to borrow it, and reassured me that his mom loved it.
Ironically, while I couldn’t put it down, I found myself reading it as slowly as I possibly could. I savored every line and just didn’t want it to end. Even though it’s a translation and you would assume the real literary magic was left in the Hebrew, the English translation is glorious. The book, about an Israeli writer finding hidden roots in Amsterdam and deciding to go there to explore his past, is spellbinding. Yes, the topic is difficult and could require breaks for this reason. But I didn’t read it slowly for want of breaks. I read it slowly because I knew how devastated I would be when I had to part with it; when I had to say goodbye to Sonia, Yoel and Amsterdam.
The book was written in a style that I’ve never experienced. Yoel, the famous Israeli author, realizes that his history isn’t what he always thought it was. He heads to Amsterdam to uncover his mother’s story – and thus his own; and as he goes deeper into the past, his own experiences in the streets of Amsterdam blend with those of his mother during the Holocaust. Rather than writing the story with flashbacks, and separating the current chapters from those in the past, we read them entwined. One minute we are with Yoel in the cafe, and the next we are with Sonia, walking down the same street in Amsterdam. We can feel Yoel breathing in the past and experiencing what his mother must have experienced in the very streets and stores.
In addition to the writing style, the story line was a thought-provoking look at a piece of Jewish history during the Holocaust. It explores issues of identity and family while touching upon the lives of hidden children (and their parents) during World War II in Amsterdam.
I’ll leave you with one of the last paragraphs in the book.
“He wants to write this book like Vincent van Gogh painted: to pour the colors generously, knead them with his paintbrush as if he were molding clay, and form the contours of his soul layer upon layer upon layer. He wants, like Vincent, not to be afraid to take a sheet of paper on which he has drawn a city street or a bird’s nest, to turn it over and paint another self-portrait on the other side. Like Vincent, he wants to also work outside, even in the wind and the rain, so that the day will come when within the layers of his portraits, grains of earth and stalks of grass will be found.”
Emuna Alon has certainly poured the colors generously, kneaded them with her paintbrush and formed the contours of her soul with this story.