Sunday, September 24, 2017

Forest Dark - Nicole Krauss (Book Review)

What happens when the foundations of your life no longer make sense to you? When you realize that the things you always enjoyed, the goals you always worked towards, the very beliefs you built your life on, no longer make sense? It's as if you've suddenly woken up on an unmoored boat in the middle of a strange sea, no land in sight, unfamiliar stars above.

This is what has happened to Jules Epstein, wealthy Jew, patron of arts, a man who fought his way up the ladder of life and has always ensured that he had the best of everything. At the age of 68, after losing both his parents in quick succession, he retires from his law firm, divorces his wife, and gives away most of his possessions. All in quest of a "lightening", as if giving away all his life's accumulations will help him discover himself again.

This is also what has happened to Nicole (no last name), famous author, unloved wife, mother to two needy children. She is unable to sleep, unable to write, unable to walk out of a long-dead marriage. One day, she comes into her own house and suddenly has the feeling that there is another Nicole inside the house, walking around, tidying up, talking to the children. As if years of living for somebody else has split her into two, the other half doing all the duties and chores that she has trained herself to do. Nicole dreams of the Tel Aviv Hilton, a blocky monstrosity, where she spent many childhood vacations. She feels the need to go back there, as if going back will help her get back to her normal self.

In Tel Aviv, Nicole falls into what seems like an absurd but exciting conspiracy tale. She meets somebody who claims that he can prove that Kafka did not die in Prague at the age of 40 - that he traveled to Tel Aviv and lived a long and quiet life there as a gardener. The man wants her to write the story of the "actual" ending of Kafka's life. Epstein also meets a succession of people who try to get him to contribute his wealth towards their objectives.

What do Epstein and Nicole have in common? Both are Jews, both are lost, both travel to Tel Aviv to find themselves again. But the stories somehow never synchronize. They feel like individual novellas, blended together just for showmanship. Despite some insightful passages and delicious writing, the book feels disjointed and leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled at the end.

A strong thread of Jewish history and culture runs throughout book.  Perhaps I would have liked the book better had I had a better understanding of the origin stories of the Jews, and the beliefs that hold them together. As it was, I kept trying to figure out if a particular detail was relevant to the story, whether it had a hidden meaning quite beyond my comprehension.

The ending leaves the reader at a bit of a loose end. What really happened to Epstein and why? (The book starts with his disappearance in Tel Aviv.) Did Nicole's Kafka enthusiast even exist or was he just a figment of her imagination? Where do the Epstein and Nicole stories overlap except that they both stayed in the Tel Aviv Hilton? The reader is left to figure out all this herself.
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