I bought this book by Yuval Elbashan as soon as I heard about it. Yuval and I worked together a long time ago and he has since become a prominent social activist in Israel. Naturally, I was curious to read what he wrote. (He also wrote some legal books, but I prefer other means for falling asleep fast).
Ella is a 40-something woman that is coming to terms with her father’s death five years ago, and is finally ready to enter his old flat and clear it up. (This takes place sometime in the 2030s, a futuristic them that is not developed further in the book aside to references to a “digital”, the video-phone of the future). In the flat Ella discovers a bunch of letters that her father – Na’im - wrote to her over the years, mostly in the form of short stories. These stories revolve around Flora, Ella’s larger-than-life aunt, who has seen it all, done it all: married and divorced two husbands, wrote a PhD, engaged in social activism, saved her younger brother from drugs, lived abroad, drove along Route 66… you name it. Flora’s presence in her brother Na’im’s life is so prominent that he names his daughter Flori, after her, but when the daughter grows up she changes her name to Ella. Na’im sees this not as a failure but actually as proof that Ella inherited some of his Flora’s independence and spunk.
Through the stories Na’im writes to his daughter, we are exposed to the lives of this poor family of children of immigrants from Iraq. Na’im and Flora have an older brother who is a womaniser; a younger brother who is an ex drug-addict; and a sister who is evacuated from the Gaza strip in the 2005 “disengagement” plan and whose husband commits suicide. These siblings grew up with a violent father and a submissive mother, and when they grew up each ran in a different direction to get as far away as possible from their childhood home in Jerusalem. Each grapples with the scars, physical but mostly mental, that their father has left them to carry for the rest of their lives.
I loved this book. It covers a lot of ground in terms of Israeli society: immigrants from Arab countries (“sefaradim”), bonds forged in the army, politics, social strife, and much more. Some sub-plots and characters in the book seemed a little “forced”, as if Yuval insisted on inserting his world views into the story even when the fit was not natural. For example, the story of the old Holocaust survivor who lives in the same building as Flora is somewhat under-developed and I suspect it is there to raise the shameful treatment these survivors receive from the establishment. But most of the stories are very touching and are universal in the sense that every reader can find parts of his personal family history in them. Yuval does a beautiful job in creating dialogues between family members that are short but reveal so much of their convoluted and complex relationships.
Towards the end of the book the narrator quotes a short passage from Flora’s PhD dissertation. It is about the “book moment”, the moment in the reading of a book that imprints it in the mind of the reader for eternity. I think not all books have this “moment”, but Forever Flora certainly does. For me, there were two such moments, the second of which was this short passage about “the moment” itself. The first moment was the beautiful theme of the Bakers and the Butlers. I won’t reveal here what this is all about; you’re going to have to read the book.
I have not spoken with Yuval for 15 years. I hope to have a chance soon to tell him personally how much I enjoyed his first novel, and how envious I am of his achievement.