In his new novel, David Grossman’s genius for captivating storytelling is once again on triumphant display as he writes as affectingly about the great themes that have long stirred his imagination — children coping with trauma, loneliness, loss, and restoration — as ever. In his heroine Vera, a heroic anti-Nazi partisan later interred in an infamously brutal prison when she and her husband are falsely accused of being Stalinists by Tito’s regime, Grossman renders a protagonist every bit as memorable as Ora in his epic To the End of the Land. More Than I Love My Life is his most female-centered work to date, and through Vera’s daughter and granddaughter he brings to life three generations of complex, strong-willed women. Each plays a role in a cruel cycle of mistreatment and abandonment set in motion by cruel historical forces, and each harbors bitter recriminations toward one another based in the past.
The story begins in the winter of 1963 when as a new Israeli citizen, Vera, is sent with her unhappy young daughter, Nina, to a kibbutz where she meets Tuvia, a famed agronomist. Vera’s first husband Milosz committed suicide during his brutal treatment and Tuvia’s cherished wife died after a long disease that left their young son Rafael desperate for affection. The pair make an unconventional pact; Vera promises that while she will live with Tuvia always as his “faithful best friend,” her heart would forever belong to her beloved Milosz. Surprisingly, on those guarded terms their domestic harmony lasts for many happy years.
Alas, things don’t work out quite so benignly for their unhappy adolescent children, Rafael and Nina. After her hormone-fueled tryst with Rafael, Nina runs away from the kibbutz, a flight that leads her to an unhappy life of perpetual wandering. Devastated, Rafael never overcomes what he sees as the great love of his life. Rafael and Nina’s daughter Gili, forever embittered that Nina selfishly abandoned her as a child, struggles to make sense of her parents’ lives.
Given the mysteriously unyielding nature of Nina’s heart, it seems almost too much of a narrative artifice that she dwells on a tiny frozen island in a remote archipelago between Lapland and the North Pole. Yet somehow, she and the rest of this utterly dysfunctional family reunite to undertake a roots journey of sorts to Vera’s birthplace, the sacred places where she and Milosz first fell in love, through the haunted spaces of World War II, and ultimately to Goli Otok itself, the Adriatic prison island where Vera nearly perished. Raphael and Nina film their odyssey, desperately yearning “to finally cleanse ourselves of what’s been polluting our family for three goddamn generations.” What transpires is a white-knuckled ride of emotional peaks and lows amidst harrowing revelations.
As the dramatic events of the distant past and present converge, we feel the conflicted judgements of Gili the narrator, grappling with a past she is powerless to change but surely would if she could. Once again, Jessica Cohen, who shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with Grossman, rewards us with a superb translation. Readers may be intrigued to learn that More Than I Love My Life is based on a true story. Yet even without that knowledge, this startling and achingly tender story gracefully delivers both historical and emotional verisimilitude. This intergenerational novel about shattered lives and ideals, impossible loves, grief, and healing is as moving a story as one could hope for from Israel’s consummate novelist of trauma, empathy, and the redemptive possibilities of storytelling.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.