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A Novel of Bus Bombings and Russian Émigrés

How does trauma change our lives forever? (Pantheon, $25.95), the second novel by Michael Lavigne, explodes into print with a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv and never looks back. With three interlocking narratives written in lyrical prose, this stunning and disquieting novel follows the rippling effects of this act of violence through the lives of its victims and perpetrators.

Roman Guttman is a Russian émigré living in Tel Aviv in 1996, an architect and the single parent of a quirky and self-possessed daughter. When a suicide bomb blast rips through his office wall, it transforms him both physically and mentally; his hallucinatory visions of the bomber spur his wandering through the Palestinian Territories, in search of the conflict’s roots. Entwined with Roman’s story is the narrative of Fadi, the bomber speaking from beyond the grave, telling meandering vignettes that recount how he came to terrorism. Lavigne is skillful at making both voices sympathetic, the unhinged victim and the boy terrorist, and their tales interact as the narrative progresses.

The third plotline is voiced by Anyusha (Anna), Roman’s teenaged daughter who embarks on her own treacherous quest into the world of radical Jewish fundamentalism. With spiky hair and a love of Japanese manga comics, Anyusha invigorates the novel with her youthful energy. “As soon as he took my hand, everything got quiet. The voices of the trees and the insects, and the cars and the people in them, and the buildings and the pavement…. It was like coming up from under water when you’re holding your breath, and you don’t think you’re going to make it, but you do, you get to the end of the pool and you burst through the water.” The narrative gains energy as the plotlines converge: Roman near Bethlehem, Anyusha in the Old City of Jerusalem, Fadi’s spirit floating through the ether.

In parallel to Anyusha’s adventure, Roman recalls the story of Anyusha’s refusnik mother Collette and her trials in the Soviet Union a decade earlier. Reading this novel a quarter-century after the historic March on Washington for Soviet Jewry, I am reminded of the difficulties refusniks faced in the Soviet Union — the shortages, the persecutions, the trumped-up trials — and of the ways in which their struggle still impacts the Russians now living in Israel. At the same time, Anyusha is a perfect example of the modern second-generation Russian Israeli: curious about her parents’ struggles in Soviet Russia, but thoroughly Israeli and engaged with the problems of her society and time.

While there are many novels about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what makes The Wanting stand out is its captivating writing. Fadi’s voice, in particular, haunts me with its poetry, and from his story does the book’s title come. “I am certain that what I felt that day, I also feel today: a wanting. A wanting for something I have never tasted, but without which life cannot be said to have been properly lived.” The yearning for this deeper experience is what drives the characters in this captivating novel.

Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a writer, editor, and Jewish educator in her final year of rabbinical studies at Hebrew College in Boston. She is a fearless rider of Jerusalem buses.