—I have to go.
—To him, there….
The man walks out of the door and begins his journey to “there,” where his son, dead five years, is or isn’t, to a place that is or isn’t. As the man walks around the town, he is joined by others, a mixed band of mourners all seeking their lost children.
Their journey is related by the town chronicler, who narrates the walk through nights and days. The walkers walk because they cannot not walk. Propelled by pain and memory, they are seeking a place that doesn’t exist but that they feel in their deepest being, a place where they will once again touch, smell, hold, see a child who is a captive in time, who exists in a freeze-frame photo. They recall soccer games, homework, a rocking horse, a handmade cradle with two painted ducks. Their children have not truly died; they have just stopped living.
While they walk they talk — to themselves, to one another, to their children — and at some point fall into a walking sleep, a vivid dream sleep of night thoughts in which they speak to their children. They follow a small constant flame that suddenly explodes into a volcanic inferno, loosing words that have never — would never — have been spoken. Then lucidity, and at last a dramatic meeting with death, with earth, with an insurmountable barrier that is somehow alive with children. And then it is gone, and the walkers are left with their knowledge of “how life and death/stand face-to-face,/cooing at each other.”
A rumination on the porosity of the barrier between life and death, and above all an elegy to his son Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006, distinguished Israeli author David Grossman has poured into this book all the literary forms this brilliantly imaginative writer has at hand — prose, poetry, allusion, fable, theater, narration. The story is told completely in direct speech: the characters create the landscape, both internal and external. The language is sensual, profane, tender, brutal, a torrent of long pent-up emotion lusting for catharsis. Grossman has said that, having experienced this grief, “at least I will try to meet it with my own words and to try to give names and words to things that I have felt.” In so doing, he has given voice to the universal language of loss.
Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club.