Simply put, Shani Boianjiu is one hell of a writer and she proves it in her debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. What makes the book especially remarkable is that Boianjiu is still not much older than the three young women whose coming-of-age stories are at the heart of this story. In 2011, in fact, Boianjiu, at age twenty-four, became the youngest ever National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree.
Avishag, Yael, and Leah are three high school girls living in a small Northern Galilee town where everyone, almost by necessity, knows everyone else. The students, like young people in small towns everywhere, are bored with their lives and are already dreaming of life after high school. The big difference for these particular students is that, as they turn 18 and leave high school, all of them will be required to serve two years in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
The girls, when it is their turn, enter the IDF at different times and have very different assignments and experiences. Avishag becomes a guard responsible for keeping refugees on their side of barbed-wire fencing, Yael spends her days turning recruits into marksmen, and Leah becomes a checkpoint guard where she must be on constant alert for would-be suicide bombers. Typically, the girls will spend more time fighting boredom than directly confronting the dangers of terrorism, but each will be aged (if not necessarily matured) and changed in more subtle ways by their two years of military service.
Boianjiu allows her three central characters a first person voice to tell their own stories but, because the voices are not always distinct, this sometimes leaves the reader unsure which of the three girls is doing the speaking. Using a series of flashbacks and back stories, she intertwines their lives over a number of years as the young women struggle to maintain friendships that were strained even before they left home for the military.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was originally conceived and published in short story format. The incident in which three protesters openly request that border guards meet them with escalating levels of resistance for publicity purposes (perhaps my favorite story in the book) is, in fact, one I remember reading in The New Yorker magazine some time back. That the book was originally written as a series of standalone stories is both a strong point and a weak point. On the one hand, the incidents, considered separately, provide enlightening glimpses inside Israeli military structure from a female point-of-view. On the other, this kind of narrative structure, when combined with three indistinct first-person voices, makes it difficult to follow the larger story being told.
All that said, it is obvious that Shani Boianjiu is a talented writer, and I look forward to a more conventionally structured novel from her next time out. She has a very bright future.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)