cover image Sadness is a White Bird

Sadness is a White Bird

Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Atria, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-7626-5

Rothman-Zecher’s outstanding debut takes its title from a Mahmoud Darwish poem: “Sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.” On the cusp of adulthood, Jonathan returns with his family from America to Israel, which means that soon he must serve in the Israeli army. Having been told the tragic stories of his Jewish ancestors, this service to his people is something he dreamed of as a boy. But after meeting the daughter and son of his mother’s Palestinian friend, twins named Nimreen and Laith, whom Jonathan dictates his story to, the lens through which he views the world changes. In poetic, epistolary prose, Rothman-Zecher describes Jonathan’s growing love for Nimreen (“the tangled curtain of her blackbird hair”) and for Laith, “voice soft like your sister’s, loamy like the ground,” whose sweet, lazy disposition provokes deep affection and loyalty. Against Nimreen’s wishes, Jonathan joins the paratroopers, with tragic consequences that cause Jonathan to spiral into what may or may not be insanity. Rothman-Zecher has an unusual way with words, giving lovely, fresh descriptions of desire, violence, and injustice. (Feb.)