14th Sep 2011
Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant
Wherever You Go is US author Joan Leegant’s second book and first novel, and it is bloody brilliant.
If I could stop the review right there, I would, because I fear nothing I write could do this novel justice. But I’ll try anyway, because that’s what you, our lovely For Books Sake readers, deserve.
Set between Israel and the US, Wherever You Go brings together the stories of three Jewish Americans in their volatile homeland, each with their own past but also with a combined future.
Yona Stern is a New York artist working in a dead-end gallery job, hopping from affair to affair with married men who returns to Israel to make amends with her sister – a hard line Zionist called Dena who lives in a settlement outside Jerusalem – only to be met with a resistance more solid than the Israeli West Bank Barrier.
The second protagonist is Mark Greenglass, a talented Talmudic teacher who develops a crisis of faith before departing for America to teach at a prestigious college in New York.
Greenglass is a former drug dealer who was “saved” by religious orthodoxy – putting him at odds with his secular New York-based parents who is now struggling with the traditions that come with his new opiate.
The final main character is Aaron Blinder, a disillusioned college drop-out with a famous novelist father who followed a girl to Israel and was subsequently rejected.
Blinder finds solace amongst a group of radical Israeli settlers in an illegal encampment in the country with disturbing consequences.
As the story develops, the three characters come together in a stunning climax that highlights the risks of political and religious extremism.
Leegant manages to deal with a very emotive topic elegantly and, curiously, without emotion. It’s hard not to pick a side when talking about Israel but Leegant presents each character’s story without bias, allowing the reader to make up their own minds. It’s a notable skill and one of which she should be exceptionally proud.
I think the best parts of the book are her descriptions. She can set a scene like very few authors I know and when you’re done with the book, it feels like you’ve been to Jerusalem, felt the sunshine pricking the back of your neck and smelled the pain of a land that has soaked up more blood than it ever should have.
The book’s cover is likewise brilliantly chosen – a beautiful, but brooding sky over a Jerusalem in which you can just make out a bomb exploding. It looks inviting but upon closer inspection, the salvation offered by such a mystical city is tainted.
As one character in the book notes – people come to Israel looking to escape their problems, but they just bring their problems with them. This is especially true of the three main protagonists, as well as the raft of characters with whom they interact.
I really struggled to put this book down and have struggled even more to find fault with it. It is elegant, thoughtful and thought-provoking without being antagonistic. It explores the way people use (and abuse) religion, love, relationships, guilt and most of all – hope.
It’s beautifully written and, although I hate the phrase, a true page-turner. I just hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Wherever You Go is out now and you can get your copy from Amazon at £13.51 for Kindle or £6.22 in paperback.
Recommended for: I could limit this recommendation to anyone with an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict but I won’t. Instead, I think anyone who loves a good book should pick up a copy.
Other recommended reading: For a woman’s perspective of an age-old conflict, check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun, and for the differing impact religion can have on various lives, pick up a copy of Judy Croome’s Dancing in the Shadows of Love.