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September 7, 2017 1:37 pm

Israeli Novel ‘Three Floors Up’ Gives English Readers a Page-Turner

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The cover of ‘Three Floors Up.’ Photo: Provided. – “A wonderful fact to reflect upon … when I enter a great city by night, [is] that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret.” So Charles Dickens muses in the 19th-century classic, A Tale of Two Cities. This same contemplative voyeurism inspires Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s popular novel, Three Floors Up, which will be available in English this October.

Behind the cold, steel-reinforced doors that separate the living spaces in Nevo’s imaginary Israeli apartment building, three loosely connected, first-person confessional narratives unfold.

Collectively, the novella-length chapters offer a compelling critique of Israeli society. But Nevo’s chief strength lies in his ability to fashion wonderfully relatable characters whose troubled voices, as well as mysterious and impulsive moods, render the work a page-turner.

First floor

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On the first floor, we meet Arnon– a retired army officer living with his wife Ayelet, and his daughter, Ofri. Despite clear warnings that their neighbor, Herman — an elderly German man — is either showing signs of dementia or playing devious games with Ofri, Arnon carelessly leaves his daughter with Herman one afternoon to avoid being late to his spinning class. Ensuing events throw Arnon’s entire marriage into crisis, and lead him to confide in an old friend.

“Remember when the concrete blocks started raining down on us? And that moron couldn’t put the vehicle in reverse?” Arnon asks, reflecting on his experience as a soldier during the Palestinian Intifada. “Take that and multiply it by 10. By a hundred. A thousand. In Hebron, I was pretty calm. I had a feeling we’d get out in one piece.” The scene rattles readers in part because they fear for little Ofri, who has gone missing — but also because Nevo has vividly depicted the post-traumatic stress that underlies the Israeli experience.

Second floor

On the second floor, the improperly nicknamed “widow” that Arnon and Ayelet observe, turns out to be Hani. Married and the mother of two, Hani has penned an emotional letter to her friend in America, detailing her dissatisfaction and growing resentment for her aloof, though financially successful, husband. Her account takes an unexpected turn when her fugitive brother-in-law, Eviatar, appears at her door. Having embezzled a fortune, Eviatar seeks refuge from loan sharks — and the police.

Hani resolves to help him, if only to spark new passion in her life. “Without Enrique … there was a better than likely chance I would have gone into the army a virgin,” Hani reflects. She later recounts previous sexual experiences, including relationships that she had with a psychologist and an Orthodox man.

Nevo’s prose details Israelis’ unique exposure to different sects within their society, presenting a portal for English-language readers to discover the richness of Israeli culture.

Third floor

On the third floor, Devora — a retired judge — leaves a parting phone message for her late husband on the old answering machine that she discovers while cleaning out his study. Mulling the unfortunate events that left her estranged from her son, Devora describes a bizarre journey to Tel Aviv to participate in a protest. There, she encounters Avner Ashdot, a charming older man with a secretive past. Avner cleverly convinces Devora to join him on a revelatory trip south, where discovers a surprising secret.

Readers may find this sequence slightly too reliant on coincidence to advance the plot, and the character development is somewhat predictable. But Nevo has noticeably switched gears here, embracing a philosophical tangent as he contemplates the nature of fate as a means to connect the novel. Fittingly, Devora offers a resounding verdict justifying the majority of human behavior: “There is no such thing as a normal person. Or normal actions. There are only actions that a particular person, at a particular time ,must do.”

This is the mark of an author who understands that essential character faults  — in fiction, as in life — are actually the source of human liberty, informing our ability to seize the day and abruptly change course.

Excessive details are at times disruptive throughout the book. Likewise, the recurring congenital defect (six toes) that Devora observes on her daughter-in-law’s foot — and then again on her grandchild — is unnecessary, if not a stretch to imagine.

Yet none of these distractions will slow down the reader. On the contrary, Nevo’s talent for embedding character traits and cultural anecdotes through quick one-liners is perhaps his greatest asset. The prose sings in places, which makes Three Floors Up difficult to put down.

“Three Floors Up;” by Eshkol Nevo (author) and Sandra Silverston (translator); Other Press; October 2017; 304 pages; ISBN-10: 1590518780; ISBN-13: 978-1590518786.

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