by T.F. Rigelhof
Edeet Ravel is a novelist who can fascinate and frustrate a reader in almost equal measure. The fascination comes from the scope of her ambition. A Wall of Light is her third novel in three years, the concluding volume of the Tel Aviv Trilogy that began with Ten Thousand Lovers (2003), which was shortlisted for the Governor General's Fiction Award, as well the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and Look for Me (2004) which won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. The things that make these works tower over much that is being written by her contemporaries (she was born in 1955) have a great deal to do with the facts that Ravel was born on a Marxist kibbutz near the Lebanese border, lived there until her parents returned to their hometown, Montreal, and then went back on her own at eighteen to do a BA and an MA in English Literature before undertaking a PhD in Biblical Exegesis at McGill. Having been raised in one intellectual tradition, and trained in two overarching but not altogether complementary ones, Ravel's books are filled with Israelis struggling to comprehend themselves within a world "which is capable of producing intelligent babies but manages to turn them into morons, gradually, bit by bit, until at fifty they are nearly brain-dead," to quote Sonya Vronsky, a fictional professor of mathematics at Tel Aviv University and the central figure in A Wall of Light.
Sonya's narrative, encompassing a single late August day in a recent year in which "she kisses a student, pursues a lover, finds her father, and leaves her brother", is interleaved with a sequence of letters and diary entries: the letters, covering the first eight months of 1957, are from Anna, Sonya's mother, to Andrei, the lover who could not escape the Soviet Union with her; the diary belongs to Noah, Sonya's nephew, and charts his coming of age between June 1980 and Christmas 1992. Collectively, they explore three strands in Israel's attempts to reconcile its past with its future, with Ravel subsuming as much as she can of that state within the confines of a single family. By exposing the common elements in their disparate experiences (Anna is a newcomer who embraces the difficult country that so confuses Noah's political and sexual identities that he leaves it for Berlin), Ravel attempts to go well beyond surface effects and superficial design and turn her Vronskys into a precise and definitive allegory of moral weight, political force and fully human merit. That's what I mean by the scope of an ambition that connects her to Amos Oz and the Biblical prophets on the one hand, and to Margaret Atwood and a string of 19th-century English novelists on the other.
Sonya Vronsky, in her own words, is "getting ridiculously old for a virgin. Technically I was not a virgin, of course. I was one of the few people in this country who, without being famous or dead, had made the front pages twice, and my sexual status was known to anyone who cared to remember the story." Sonya has been deaf since childhood when a headline-grabbing medical error caused permanent loss of hearing, and a victim of sexual assault after being brutally raped on campus by twin brothers in the early stages of her academic career. "Stories never die here because people keep them alive. No one seems to have any secret tragedies and sorrows, except maybe my brother." But neither of those "big stories" matter to her in the way the smaller story of that key day in her life does because it runs counter to the way things are in Israel: "people were promiscuous and sexually confident. No one had to talk about sex because everyone was doing it." But she needs to talk about sex, doing it for the first time, and then pursuing her Arab lover across barriers of several kinds (including the notorious wall), with remarkable frankness. It makes for riveting reading. Her brother, Kostya, is depressed by the "carnality that bordered on pathology" that's so prevalent in their country, "the meaningless mating between strangers" that "in his more generous moments he attributed . . . to stress and constant contact with death: those things that made people dispense with caution; it made them angry and their anger made them hungry and cynical." Sonya disagrees: for her as for Lily in Ten Thousand Lovers, a random act of mating with a stranger is a way of giving in to vulnerability and overcoming hatred and its debilitating consequences, a way of recovering laughter, unpredictability, comic possibility, and full illumination. Sonya wants "a wall of light, a blinding light that would leave nothing out: nothing to find, nothing to search for. Inside it, every dead and living body would surface like a digit in a unique system that negates all the systems preceding it."
Sonya makes Khalid, her lover, laugh because she's such a funny person, full of surprising twists and turns. He likes her very much and so too will readers. At a guess, it's Sonya's capacity to be so likeable despite her plainness, oddity, and lack of propriety that won over the Giller Prize jurors and led them to include this very dark horse on their shortlist. It certainly can't have been the overall structure of the book or the quality of writing within it. This is where the frustration comes in. Unlike Margaret Atwood, Edeet Ravel has not mastered the epic device of tales-within-tales that is the pre-condition for writing a really big book in which the problems of individual lives accurately reflect the character of the times. Because she can't find a way to integrate necessary backstories within the compelling narratives that are at the forefront of her work, such clumsy old-fashioned devices as letters and diaries just get in the way of her readers and almost asphyxiate her best efforts. The most satisfying way to read A Wall of Light might be to follow Sonya from beginning to end and then take up Anna's letters and Noah's diary afterwards. Half way through, I did just that and found the whole work more rather than less illuminating.