Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
Written by Valerie Zenatti
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by Melissa

It's September 9, 2003, ten years exactly from the date when Yassir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton shook hands and promised peace to the Israeli and Palestinian people. A bomb goes off in a cafe in Tal's neighborhood, shaking not only the buildings, but Tal's hope and peace of mind. So, she decides -- mostly on a whim, but also from some inner need -- to write a letter to the "other" side. She imagines it would be a girl, and she (somewhat naively and romantically) decides to put it in an old champagne bottle, and give it to her brother (who's serving in Gaza) to throw in the Gaza Sea.

It doesn't turn out the way she expects: the person who writes back via email (to an address that Tal had included in the bottle letter) uses the handle "Gazaman", and isn't exactly polite or interested in her idea. But Tal persists, and he is drawn to her and to the idea, and a friendship of sorts evolves between the two of them.

There really isn't much plot beyond that, but this book isn't a plot-driven one. Switching between e-mails from Gazaman and Tal and individual narration, it's more of an exploration of life in Israel versus life in the Gaza Strip. It's a book of understanding and misunderstanding, of hope and despair, of making the best of what one has, while also trying to rise above it. I felt like it was full of stereotypes, especially at first: Gazaman is the tough, insensitive Arab who hates everyone; Tal the liberal, sympathetic Jew who just wants everyone to get along. But, as the book progressed, their understanding matured and the book became more believable, less stereotypical.

This book worked so well because the writing is simple and powerful. It was written because the author, who is Israeli, wanted to believe in some kind of peace, to have some kind of hope for her region. This comes through very eloquently in her writing, especially in her view that perhaps the only way peace will come is if ordinary people reach out to each other and try to understand the lives they are leading. My only real complaint is in the marketing: the cover makes one think that it's a love story, and it's not. It's more simple than that: it's a story of two people trying to make a connection in or to make sense of and in spite of the horrors of war.

It's this connection between Tal and Gazaman that drives the book, that makes it into what it is: a beautiful, sad, moving story, and one that's both important and compelling to read.


Erin said...

Wow, you've definitely made me want to read this.

Corinne said...

Awesome review. I agree with you about the characters seeming stereotypical at first - but in the end I believed in both of them :)