Sunday, July 31, 2011

Her shoes off and her quick feet wild

In the moonlight, there was an edged beauty to my mother. The round woman looked glamorous against the barren debris, the garbage, and the graves, her bosoms asserted themselves into the stenchful air, amid the corrupted stone. Her presence was like a narcotic in this dirty place; the earth rose, aroused, swirls of dust that turned to intoxicating waves of wind and imagination. I envisioned her dancing in one of her silk dresses, her shoes off and her quick feet wild, a rough star of the underground with all her boyfriends. I could see my shadow when I looked into the stone, the throw of moonlight on the graves. I was so small against the large female person who was my mother sometimes and sometimes this character from the past, as sultry and sexy as any character I might read about in the British romance novels left in the closet at One Metadulah Street. Even in the ugly field of forgotten deaths here, she looked radiant and carnal — her rippling flesh, freckles and broad, full-lipped face. It was dizzying, death and decay and my mother's perfumed, sex smell.


The evening wind went through the underside of my sandals like a tongue, my legs were shorter than hers, I thought, and I put my hand under my shirt to feel my breasts. I put my hand to touch the tiny bumps that I hope will make me like her. I studied my mother against the moonlight and the sky which made this place, like all of Israel, horrible and stunning at the same time — the graves that were strips of brittle stone, and the desiccated, naked ground.

— from The Fragile Mistress, by Leora Skolkin-Smith.

The Fragile Mistress is the retitled, repackaged, slightly expanded reissue of Edges, O Israel O Palestine. It's a slim novel, poetic and compelling.

It's a coming-of-age story, but on a few different levels: Liana's 14 and has travelled to Israel with her older sister and her mother. She witnesses a traumatic event, but also experiences a sexual awakening and falls in love. Liana's also grappling with a host of mommy issues; as much as she feels humiliated and embarrassed by her mom, she also admires her and is drawn by the mystery of her womanhood.

Israel is also coming of age in this novel. It's 1963, and there's a water war developing. There are soldiers and snipers, checkpoints and barbed wire. There are stories of the Haganah.

Quite wisely in the final chapter, a kind of epilogue, on her return to Israel some 20-odd years later Liana recognizes that she hadn't fully understood the politics of the time. Her experiences — the events, the terrain — "had my own face back then, too, my physical confusions, my formlessness."

So it's not exactly a political novel, but Israel is always present.

In the afterword, Skolkin-Smith writes:

Most potential readers, I thought and perhaps still believe, wouldn't even know there had been a world before the state of Israel was formed in 1948 or that this world included Jews, including many non-zionist Jews who coexisted peacefully with their Arab neighbors.

It makes for a vibrant backdrop and, ironically, an almost apolitical one.

The language is strong — in a rawly poetic, carnal way — sometimes almost uncomfortably so. At time it reads like the diary of a petulant adolescent, but this is fitting. Some passages verge on excessive, but taken as a whole, this is a tight novel with no extraneous bits.


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