A work of contemporary fiction, Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne is a timely and important portrayal of a realm of Middle Eastern conflict made familiar to most of us in the West through the distorted lens of news and current affairs coverage, a lens too often smeared with the Vaseline of prejudice, its purported wide angle little more than a pinhole. Perhaps it is only through the lived experience of people to some degree inside the context of Israeli/ Palestinian tensions and conflict that our awareness can broaden and deepen. Set against the backdrop of another looming conflict with Gaza, Chains of Sand offers the reader a chance to share in the lives of an endearing cast of characters rendered as vivid and as real as the reader’s intimate friends, and through this cast, to consider perspectives from within what is widely considered the aggressor nation: Israel.
The architecture of the narrative is in essence simple, two young men hankering for a better life: Iraqi-born Israeli, Udi, craving a life in London; and Jewish Londoner, Daniel, bent on moving to Tel Aviv. Neither is religious, they represent a generation pulling away from orthodoxy, yet they are each influenced by and wrestle with the beliefs, customs and rituals of the Jewish faith as it impacts on their lives through their families and friends.
The story begins with Udi, fresh from the army, unemployed, listless and frustrated, his application to reside in Britain a source of constant anxiety and hope. Despite the third person narration, the reader is beside him, in his home with his mother and father, out in the streets of Ramat Gan with its cosmopolitan vibe, caught in the mayhem of the traffic, hanging out with his friends on the beach or in a cafe, and sharing in his flashback memories of fighting in Gaza. Udi is a young man haunted and determined to rise above it.
He is also is a man loyal to the Israeli state and keen to defend it. Yet through lessons learned from his own troubled past, Udi understands the need to keep the human actor present in descriptions of conflict. In questioning an army friend’s statement that his brother was killed by a bomb, and not a bomber, Udi states, “The semantics allow him to hold a whole people to blame and salvage at least some opportunity to put things right: a tooth for a tooth.” Yet it is Udi’s unreflective habit of rolling bits of shrapnel in his palm, “like prayer beads,” that confronts the reader with the realisation that in Israel, war is in danger of replacing religion as a system of faith.
The reader is soon in London and introduced to the headstrong, self-analytical, angst-filled and not entirely likeable city banker Dan, the narrative switching to first person to fully exploit his egocentric introspections. Through Dan, Judaic believing and practice in London in all its variants is depicted with wit and warmth, no better conveyed than when Dan describes his father’s consternation over changing attitudes to the customs of faith, the same father who helped found a cross-cultural London dialogue group. “Perhaps this is why he speaks now like a man clutching desperately to a stream of water escaping from a tap that he himself turned on.”
Written in clear, unsaturated prose, the narration remains close, calm and measured throughout, the story’s horrors, tragedies and triumphs depicted with just enough detail and never overplayed. There are echoes of Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, both novels delving into the complexity of being Jewish in London. Yet refreshingly, Wayne’s Dan lacks the intense and almost stereotypically neurotic introspection of Jacobson’s protagonist. Instead, and especially through the eyes of her female characters, Wayne conveys the realities that confront ordinary people struggling to exist and find work and love and fulfilment in cities prone to attack, where prejudice can turn to violence with little provocation.
Both Udi’s and Dan’s mothers reflect more orthodox perspectives, their anxieties those of any mother agonising over the welfare of the son she is about to lose. It is through the two men’s sisters and girlfriends that the reader is presented with progressive, sophisticated, complex responses to a Jewish identity in crisis. Dan’s sister Gaby is emphatic that she is British first, and Jewish second; that in matters of identity, nationality is paramount. Dan’s girlfriend, talented artist Urli, speaks of the diversity and elusiveness of truth. And Udi’s sister Avigail, wife, mother and daughter too, is a cross-cultural intellectual feminist activist campaigning for peace and taking risks with her own life to achieve it.
A parallel narrative takes the reader back in time, before the wall went up in Jerusalem, a time when a naïve young Jewish girl snuck into the Arabic quarter of the city searching for inspiration and finding love. It is an intoxicating, acutely observed depiction of the Romeo and Juliet scenario, for Dara’s love is surely forbidden, Kaseem’s just as surely doomed. Here, Chains of Sand becomes almost a whispered narrative of the immutable social strictures that separate Muslim Arab from Jew.
The Muslim Arab perspective is again explored with the softest of brushstrokes in Dan’s girlfriend, Safia, who serves as his moral stanchion, quietly goading, quizzing, testing, as he defends his prejudices, and his decisions.
The female characters in Chains of Sand are positioned somewhat in the shade cast by the male protagonists, yet this shade is not obscure. It is shade made all the richer for being beyond the harsh rays of the stark either/or realities of Udi and Dan. In the shade are the textures, the nuances, the depths, and the deeper the reader ventures into its recesses, the closer she is to the truth.
Chains of Sand is a brave book, one that reveals the complexities of being Jewish and of being Israeli, of identifying with Israel as a nation, as a concept, as a home for the Jewish people, complexities hampered by a modern zeitgeist that is wont to be blindly anti-Israel. Chains of Sand challenges a viewpoint unable to see a polyglot cosmopolitan nation struggling to grow and understand itself, whilst fully cognizant that this same nation is blinkered by the politics of aggression towards its neighbours, a nation apt to stumble into overreaction through fear of losing itself. It does the reader no harm to explore perspectives born of the lived experience of those we may apparently oppose. For that alone, I salute the author.
(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley. A version of this review will appear in the August edition of Shiny New Books, UK)