Summary and book reviews of Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Sadness Is a White Bird

by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher X
Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2019, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

Book Summary

In this lyrical and searing debut novel written by a rising literary star and MacDowell Fellow, a young man is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

The story begins in an Israeli military jail, where - four days after his nineteenth birthday - Jonathan stares up at the fluorescent lights of his cell, and recalls the series of events that led him there.

Two years earlier: Moving back to Israel after several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan is ready to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state, which his grandfather - a Salonican Jew whose community was wiped out by the Nazis - helped establish. But he is also conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories, a concern that grows deeper and more urgent when he meets Nimreen and Laith - the twin daughter and son of his mother's friend.

From that winter morning on, the three become inseparable: wandering the streets on weekends, piling onto buses toward new discoveries, laughing uncontrollably. They share joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets, family histories, resentments, and dreams. But with his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestles with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage and loyal to your people, while also feeling love for those outside of your own tribal family. And then that fateful day arrives, the one that lands Jonathan in prison and changes his relationship with the twins forever.

Powerful, important, and timely, Sadness Is a White Bird explores one man's attempts to find a place for himself, discovering in the process a beautiful, against-the-odds love that flickers like a candle in the darkness of a never-ending conflict.

ONE

EVERYTHING WAS SALT AND SWEAT, summertime and sharpened swords. It was Friday, July 25th. The date of our catastrophe, Laith.

Or mine, at least.

Two days after my 19th birthday. Two days before I was sent here. One lifetime ago. Now, in the fluorescent glow of this jail cell, I can still feel echoes of the South Hebron heat on my skin. Mostly, the desert painted in shades of red on the canvas of my face, but when I looked in the mirror that morning, on July 25th, I thought I saw a faint hum of brown glimmering beneath the sunburnt crust, threading between the black and ochre tapestry of my almost-full beard. A twinge of Saba Yehuda's complexion, maybe. A twinge of my grandfather's Salonican toughness. You might not have recognized me. My scalp was a hedgehog. My eyes glinted strangely in the glass of the base's bathroom, yellow-green and nearly fearless.

We'd been in the Territories for almost a month by this point. One night, on guard duty outside the...

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Introduction

In this lyrical and searing debut novel, a young man is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

When Jonathan moves back to Israel after high school, he is eager to join the army and defend the Jewish state that his grandfather helped establish. But Jonathan is also conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories, a concern that only grows more urgent when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother's friend.

From that winter morning on, the three become inseparable, caught in a whirlwind of passion and connection...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Much of Sadness is a White Bird is an exploration into cultural identity and how even newer generations of optimistic, progressive, humanistic youths are unable to shake off the historical shackles that pull them back into a never-ending cycle of conflict. Rothman-Zecher has an exquisite ability to vocalize the historical contexts that shape personal identity. Through shimmering prose and a pointedly intimate narrative, Rothman-Zecher has written a powerful, passionate but even-handed criticism of the ultimately futile Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both sides only stand to lose...continued

Full Review (744 words).

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(Reviewed by Dean Muscat).

Media Reviews

Booklist
Rothman-Zecher, who refused to serve in the Israeli army, addresses complex, urgent issues through his vital and memorable characters.

Publishers Weekly
Rothman-Zecher has an unusual way with words, giving lovely, fresh descriptions of desire, violence, and injustice.

Kirkus
Starred Review. A passionate, poetic coming-of-age story set in a mine field, brilliantly capturing the intensity of feeling on both sides of the conflict.

Library Journal
Starred Review. Passionate, topical, and thoughtful, this heartbreaking tale is vital reading for anyone who cares about the future of this part of the world.

Author Blurb Michael Chabon
Nuanced, sharp, and beautifully written, Sadness Is a White Bird manages, with seeming effortlessness, to find something fresh and surprising and poignant in the classic coming-of-age, love-triangle narrative, something starker, more heartbreaking: something new.

Author Blurb Geraldine Brooks, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March
Unflinching in its honesty, unyielding in its moral complexity.

Author Blurb Madeleine Thien, author of the Man Booker Prize Finalist Do Not Say We Have Nothing
I loved Sadness is a White Bird for its profound meditation on how we each strive to hold ourselves morally and politically to account, an individual resistance to a world of walls and violence, in defiance of the belief that 'Each man has limited space in his heart, for sadness and for sorrow and for regret.'

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Beyond the Book

A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies

Sadness is a White Bird's cryptic title is actually a direct quotation from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's 1967 poem, "A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies," which forms part of his collection The End of Night.

Did you feel sad? I asked.
Cutting me off, he said, Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.

Indeed, much of Rothman-Zecher's novel takes inspiration from the imagery and themes within this seminal poem that stages a dialogue between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian narrator who shares the poet's name, Mahmoud.

Mahmoud Darwish Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away in 2008 after complications from open-heart surgery, is widely regarded as one of the ...

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