Jonathan Cape, £18.99, 577pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

To the End of the Land, By David Grossman, trans. Jessica Cohen

In David Grossman's long-awaited new novel, Avram, an Israeli prisoner of war in Egypt after the Yom Kippur war, observes a fellow-POW "crying out of jealousy for his girlfriend", and feels reverence for a man who "could find such dedication to his own private pain, which had nothing to do with the Egyptians and their tortures". For seven years, English-language readers of Grossman have been awaiting a new work of fiction. His last, Her Body Knows, was two novellas, returning to the private themes of intimacy between men and women and sexual jealousy: a turning-away from the world at the moment after the outbreak of the second intifada, when the political was invading every aspect of Israeli life.

In 2003, Grossman began an epic new novel, which finally arrives in English translation, in which a woman tries to evade delivery of the dreaded news that her son has been killed in action by running away from home. But fiction extended a hand out to the territory of the real. Grossman has always had an extraordinary imagination; in this case, having written much of a first draft, he received that news himself, of his son Uri's death in the closing hours of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and returned to his fictional characters to infuse them with what he calls "the echo of reality".

Ora reasons that if she is not there to hear the news, then it can't be delivered; and if it is not delivered, then it hasn't happened. Irrationally, she feels that in this way she is protecting her son Ofer. But mother and son are in a complicated web of relationships going back long before his birth.

Abandoned in the isolation ward of a Tel Aviv hospital during the Six Day War, terrified that the city and the county has already fallen to the Egyptians, Ora and two other sick teenagers, Avram and Ilan, huddle together and try to comfort each other. Avram is the artist, the romantic, the boy Ora is already falling in love with. The reader suspects that the sickly Ilan will not survive.

But 40 years later, at the start of another war, Ora is the separated wife of Ilan, now a successful lawyer, and the mother of two sons. Ofer has just finished his military service but has volunteered to do another 28 days. It is part of the knotty paradox of Israel that the person who takes him to his base is the family's long-standing taxi driver, Sami, a Palestinian-Israeli, who is being asked to deliver a soldier to wage war on his own people.

These early scenes in which a mother's tenacious desire to protect her son come into collision with Sami's bitten-down rage, expressed as his refusal to turn down the music on the radio, are part of the underlying fabric of a novel in which we see how the Israeli military occupies all human spaces.

Deciding that she won't return home to await the knock on the door, Ora immediately embarks on the aborted hiking trip she and Ofer had planned. She makes Sami drive to Tel Aviv to pick up Avram. The teenage artist is now a middle-aged down-and-out, surviving on his wages as a dishwasher in a restaurant, sick, physically repulsive and emotionally deadened.

Ora forces him to go off on this hiking trip, beginning with him losing control of his bladder and urinating on Sami's new upholstery - a final insult of occupier and occupied. In the course of their hike through Israel, Ora and Avram revisit their lives and the tangled relationship between themselves and Ilan. Past and present dissolve into each other; memory and the personal history of two people is a continuous dimension to our existence in the present tense.

Avram's troubles began when he was captured and tortured by the Egyptians during his own military service in the Yom Kippur war. Later, in a long harrowing section, we learn of Ilan's attempts to get the army to rescue him; the horror of the Yom Kippur war at the edge of the Suez Canal, the burnt bodies, the torture of Israeli prisoners, the whole demented blackened landscape is what Ora and Avram know may be happening to Ofer.

In a novel without any obvious plot, there are continuous surprises as Grossman reveals more and more of the intricate connection between the three characters. Avram is in fact Ofer's father, the child he has never met. During the course of their hike through Israel, Ora tries to educate him about her son, battering through the numbness to make him feel, to know another human being with intimacy.

Ora is, of course a Jewish mother, and in her sick panic for the fate of her child she recounts how the child vegetarian has turned into hardened soldier. When he returns home from leave, she pounces on him, searching for a demilitarised space on his uniformed back, "a place that did not belong to the army, a place for her hand". He looks to her like someone she would meekly give her ID to at a checkpoint. Politicians have nationalised her child.

But escape proves frustratingly difficult. Everywhere they hike, they come across monuments to fallen soldiers. The landscape is not as innocent as it seems, being both the topography of war and of the country's history, Jewish and Arab.

Through the eyes of a terrified mother, albeit one with liberal political views, the land itself seems to be as fragile as her son's life. What if they should lose it, where should they go? What to the outside world looks like the stronger party is a nexus of insecurities. In childhood Ofer has said that he doesn't want to be Jewish: everyone wants to kill them, that's what all the holidays are about.

Gassy superlatives have been heaped on this novel by writers such as Paul Auster and Nicole Krauss. It is tricky to set out the scale of Grossman's achievement without resorting to reviewers' clichés. He has aimed as high as it is possible to do in a novel which deals with the great questions of love, intimacy, war, memory and fear of personal and national annihilation - and has overwhelmingly achieved everything. To the End of the Land will have to be read and re-read to begin to scratch the surface of its ambitions to scrape raw the human heart.

Linda Grant's novel 'The Cast Iron Shore' has been re-issued by Virago

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?