Pros: Gripping story; relevance of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how teens adapt and evolve.
Cons: That the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still exists.
___I'll Send an SOS To the World___ (The Police, Message in a Bottle)
Have you ever dreamed of writing a heart-felt missive on parchment, rolling it up and stuffing it into a bottle and throwing it off a cliff into the ocean? If so, imagine the response you may eventually receive, perhaps from a kindred spirit who shares your romantic idealism. In a modern setting, the protagonist should be sure to include her email address to expedite the response, especially if the sender was a young lady, an idealistic Jewish teenager living in Jerusalem, hoping to correspond with a Palestinian girl living in neighboring Gaza.
In A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, Tal Levine is that idealistic Jewish teen-aged girl, finishing her Senior year of high school in a Jerusalem suburb. She aspires to make movies one day, she's a veteran of marches for peace, and she cannot erase the memory of bombings which rock the very neighborhood in which she lives, studies and travels. A recent suicide bombing at a neighborhood cafe took the life of a blushing bride, just hours before her wedding. Tal keeps a diary. As a Jewish teenager herself, living amidst explosions, Tal identifies with Anne Frank, and her compulsion to keep a journal of her fears and dreams. Only Anne died before the end of the war and would have been liberated just two weeks after her death ~ why couldn't she have just held on a little longer? Tal is lucky. She's living in the Jewish state which became a post-Holocaust reality. Her family ardently supports the Peace Process. But after Rabin's assassination in September of 1993, the progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian Peace treaty crumbled. The second intifada followed, and violent attacks again ripped through Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinian villages.
Tal's letter begins with Dear You. She describes herself both physically and emotionally. She relates the after-effects of the bomb that exploded near her house just weeks ago:
"You must know that every time there's a bomb everyone wonders how the Palestinians can do it, killing innocent people. I've often wondered myself. And then I thought that it was meaningless saying 'the Palestinians.' That it must be the same with you as it is with us, there must be fat people and thin people, rich and poor, good people and bastards."
Reaching out to an unknown reader, she continues: "But if this letter is lucky enough to reach you, if you're patient enough to read it to the end, if--like me--you think we should learn to know each other, for all sorts of reasons but mainly because we want to get on with living our lives in peace because we're young...then send me a reply."
Tal chooses a champagne bottle ~ the empty reminder of a celebration many years ago when Peace seemed imminent, but was shattered by violence. She gives the bottle to Eytan, her older brother, who serves the Israeli military in a narrow, sandy strip of shore that overlooks the Gaza Sea. She tells him to throw it into the sea. He agrees, and her heartfelt missive is launched into Palestine.
Are you at the edge of your seat, wondering what will happen next? Who will unearth Tal's letter from the sand? Who will email a reply to firstname.lastname@example.org? (Bakbouk is the modern Hebrew word for "bottle"). I must admit, the book gripped my interest from Page 1, and I could not wait to discover who Tal's pen-pal would be.
Tal receives her reply soon after, but it's not from whom she expected. Rather that from a kindred spirit, a girl with whom she could identify, it was emailed from Gazaman@post.com. Yes, a Palestinian man was writing back to her! He calls her "Miss Bottle-Full-of-Hope-in-a-Sea-of-Hatred." His reply is quirky, smug, and somewhat aggressive. He replies in Hebrew ~ who is this Palestinian who knows Hebrew well enough to communicate with such dry wit and acerbity? He is Naïm, and he's as complex and layered as Tal imagined. His life in Gaza takes place in a narrow strip of land that's akin to a pickle jar. His options for a career and love are stifled and crushed. Hope is a mirage. Explosions in Israel are cause for celebration among his people... but Naïm is not convinced they are anything to celebrate either.
Reader, stay tuned, because I won't reveal any more of the plot from this slender but powerful book written by Valerie Zenatti. The story is a combination of emailed letters between Tal and Naïm, interspersed with Tal's diary and Naïm's own written thoughts, which he often tears up out of fear and frustration.
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea left me speechless. We learn about Tal and Naïm through their own words ~ personal narrative is such an effective tool for journeying deep into the soul of a character. The reader witnesses events like bombings and peace marches through first-hand eyes. What is it like to hear an explosion; withstand the aftermath; see the streets turn red with blood? What is it like to realize that others feel joy from your pain and suffering? How can Peace emerge from a monolith of hate and misunderstanding?
Zenatti's tale of two souls is deeply satisfying to read. As the emails progress, Tal and Naïm develop a bond which skirts a gray area between romance and friendship. It's not quite a Romeo and Juliet story, although theirs is forbidden contact. Their feelings grow from the knowledge that at any time, violence could tear their friendship apart. Tal's proximity to a second explosion brings consequences that transcend the physical and address the core of a survivor's guilt. Naïm has a secret which he won't reveal ~ but his secret is compelling until the very last page.
Very few novels gripped my imagination and empathy like A Bottle in the Gaza Sea. Anyone who has ever corresponded with an overseas pen-pal, or dreamed of communicating with a kindred soul in a far-away realm, will relate to Zenatti's Message in a Bottle story. The message is merely a catalyst for the inevitable understanding which occurs when boundaries which separate us, whether real or imagined, are removed.
A Note about the Audience: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is categorized as Young Adult (YA) fiction I found in my synagogue library's New Books section. As a YA book, the content is highly appropriate for teens. Aside from a single reference where Tal drinks vodka and lemon, there is little if any inappropriate language or sexualilty in the book. That was a refreshing change from some other YA fiction I've read. This wonderful library find certainly qualifies for Laurashrti's Library Writeoff.
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