“I don’t know what it was. It might have been a head, or perhaps a hand or foot, it went by so fast, but following it, as if pulling a wire, came the explosion, and instantaneously the window I was sitting beside shattered.” From the first sentence of Michael Lavigne’s “The Wanting” (Schocken), you are gripped by a tension that is sustained throughout the novel.
As an opening, this rivals Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love,” which begins with a memorable balloon accident. Here too we are confronted by violence and immersed in minutiae. The victim is Roman Guttman, a Russian Jew and sought-after architect. The suicide bomber is a young Palestinian, Amir Hamid. We start experiencing both the blast and its aftermath from Roman’s perspective.
And then as perspectives begin to shift, from Roman to his adolescent daughter, Anna, and to Amir Hamid, so do our loyalties. Lavigne accomplishes the difficult task of generating sympathy and understanding of each character. Amir’s odyssey following the bombing is an extraordinarily concrete, grounded magical realism. Anna is irresistible in her smartness, her adolescence and her attempts to confront the pressures bearing down on her. (My one quibble with the book is a choice she makes — she seems too smart to be manipulated.)
The shifts from character to character are eased by cartoons and stylized section headings: Roman is introduced by a star of David, Anna by a yin yang symbol and Amir by the star and crescent. Lavigne worked with a 14-year-old illustrator to illuminate his text and her cartoons sharply highlight aspects of the novel.
Non-Russian Jews tend to caricature the Russians: they are fervently politically right-wing; they wear too much make-up and too many gold trinkets; they vote for Avigdor Lieberman and shop at TivTa’am (a supermarket chain that specializes in charcuterie); they demand special treatment and get it.
With both sensitivity and realism, Lavigne returns to the early 1980s, the Moscow of the refuseniks, the struggle to leave and the struggle to live, the distrust that permeated every level of society, the powerlessness in the face of officialdom. One of the hallmarks of the novel is its specificity: whether describing Moscow, Jerusalem, or a Tel Aviv suburb, Lavigne has a very strong sense of place. I found myself close to consulting Google maps as Roman makes his way to the Negev or Anna traverses the Old City. Lavigne exhibits such intimacy with each community, it seemed impossible that I wasn’t reading a translation from Hebrew. The writing is consistently beautiful and while you want to linger over the language, the tension and pace of the tale propel you forward.
Lavigne has taken on the almost impossible task of presenting the paradox of extremist Israeli and Palestinian gestalts and making each understandable if not acceptable. The key of course is how to transcend one’s own fears, see the other and acknowledge the humanity of both.
The novel’s title is drawn from a scene where Amir is offered a banana split for the first time. As Lavigne has remarked, Amir knows that “without it his life can never be said to be truly lived. He is in a state of perpetual loss …. This is the state of all the characters in the book. And in a very real way, it is the fate of all of us. We yearn, we yearn.”
“The Wanting” left me wanting more and I will seek out his first novel, “Not Me.”
Sharon Anstey is a writer and business consultant in New York.