The People of Forever are Not Afraid: book review

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu. Publisher: Hogarth Books (September 2012). Literary fiction. Hardcover. 338 pages. ISBN: 978-0-307-95595-1.

“Of the twenty-four hours in any given day, Gali and Avishag spent six hours on a border checkpoint shift, eight hours on a guarding tower shift, and the remaining ten hours doing what they wanted. Of course we know that you have to shower every day (they check) eat in the cafeteria tent (they don’t check), keep your weapon clean and your vest fully equipped (they say they’ll do random checks, but they don’t).
And sleep. You need to sleep.”

If you’ve been confused by the recent escalation between Hamas and Israel, you might want to read The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu. Sometimes a novel can explain difficult political situations through captivating, realistic characters. A real page-turner, the novel provides a behind-the-scenes look at the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] from three different points of view. This novel hooked me from the first sentence and I couldn’t put it down. I devoured it within a few days. I drew attached to the three teenagers in the novel, Yael, Avishag and Leah. They grew up together in a small town in Israel and this is a coming-of-age story unlike any other as the three women complete their mandatory two-year service.

Yael trains marksmen. She’s also based where she’s unlikely to see any action at all. She befriends three more experienced, free-spirited women [“During those first two weeks, the number of guys they each mentioned sleeping with was double-digit, while I had had a boyfriend for seven years and only cheated on him once, with a short Russian soldier.”]—Hagar, Neta and Amit—which instills self-confidence in her. Each day they take a different weapon out of the storage facility to test fire it. They put ice water in IVs and lie out in their underwear while it flows into their veins. They subsist on cigarettes and Diet Coke. And they ultimately break Yael’s heart when they encourage her to hook up with New Zealand soldier Ari.

Her brother died in the IDF during the last conflict, now Avishag guards a border near Egypt where refugees climb over barbed wire fences and often get shot down by Egyptian military. Avishag becomes involved with an officer on base. On a day off she has an abortion. [“I am conflicted. If they suck it out, they’ll do it right away, and I am kind of bored and anxious to know what that would feel like, if it would feel any different or even sad, which is something I haven’t felt in a very long time. But if I take the pill I could just leave right away and go back to the base and then maybe my officer would let me sign only half a vacation day off and then I’d get to save that half day.”] She becomes detached from her job, from the IDF, from any purpose. She revolts by taking off all her clothes and lying in the guard tower. Maybe to see if she’s invisible. Maybe to see if anyone will ever notice her. She just cannot take the ennui anymore. She’s sent off to military prison and she’s actually relieved but later suffers a mental breakdown when she’s released from the IDF and returns home.

Lea—a fan of American television shows like Dawson’s Creek and Ally McBeal— never took school seriously and ends up in the transitions unit. The lowest unit. Looked down upon by every other level of the military as it takes little training or intelligence. She checks IDs at border crossings. [“It was just my luck that the first and only year of my service in the transitions unit was one of those years the government closed the sky for Filipino and Indian temporary workers, and so Israel started needing the Palestinian construction workers again. We needed them, but we were also a little afraid they’d kill us or, every worse, stay forever.”] For Lea, this post ends up being much more dangerous and life-changing than she’d ever have expected.

They’re thrown into some truly adult and potentially dangerous situations. While they often think like hormonal, selfish, naïve teenagers at other times these women react with amazing strength, bravery and clarity. Boianjiu includes point of views from Egyptian army members, Palestinians and a Ukranian woman who seeks to emigrate to Israel. A veteran of the IDF, she writes with compassion, humor, modernity and a humanistic approach to the IDF and Israel’s issues with its border nations as well as the United States and the UK. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

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