The Falafel King is Dead, By Sara Shilo

Life under fire in the other Israel

Reviewed,Julia Pascal
Monday 24 January 2011 01:00

Sara Shilo is an Israeli children's writer and this, her first adult novel, has won many awards.

It tells the story of a poor Moroccan-Jewish family living in northern Israel close to the Lebanon border. Her subject is original. Masud, the eponymous "falafel king" and head of the Dadon family, dies after being stung by a bee. In the aftermath of this accident, the narrative is related by multiple voices: those of Simona, Masud's wife, of her daughter and three sons.

Shilo's achievement is to evoke an Israel which the outside world knows little about, with a level of poverty and ignorance which typifies the lives of many North African immigrants from the 1960s. The English title is ironic because, in Israel, falafel is street food and the Dadon family at the bottom of society. Politics come into the story in a tangential manner. Shilo's setting is the first Lebanon war when Katyusha rockets are fired from across the border and the racist US Rabbi Kahane comes to give recruiting speeches. Although the outside conflict is ever-present, it is the personal dynamic which dominates. There is a fruitful tension in the observation of these Arabic-speaking Jews, whose culture is tinged with Muslim histories and whose new Israeli identities are a complex construct.

Shilo's narrative is at its strongest with her female characters, Simona and her daughter Etti. Simona is a compellingly fresh voice. Her transformation from vigorous young woman with a strong sexual presence to traumatised, sexless widow is startling. A change from first- to third-person effectively transmits the inner fracture.

Etti is also appealing. In her attempt to tell her younger brothers that the man they call their father is really their elder brother, the use of fairy-tale is poignant. However, the book's ambition is not always realised. There are long passages from Simona's two younger sons, Dudi and Itzik, who spend time caring for a kestrel after watching Ken Loach's film Kes. This device feels clumsy. The third son, Kobi, may also be Simona's lover. He shares her bed, but is there more to their relationship than that of mother and son? Shilo poses the question and, rather frustratingly, leaves it unresolved. This is a patchy novel from a gifted writer, which breaks new ground thematically even if the author does not sustain her unique take.

Julia Pascal's play 'Crossing Jerusalem' is published by Oberon

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