Monday, February 22, 2010

Review: Latency in Jerusalem

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Last month’s Idlewild book club selection was School for Love by Olivia Manning, another in the NYRB collection. It’s 1945 and Felix, a recently orphaned teenager, goes to live with a distant relative in Jerusalem to await passage back to England. Felix arrives at Miss Bohun’s boarding house naive and free of biases; he still craves the attention given to him by his coddling mother but is forced to grow up and fend for himself. As Felix meets and interacts with an eclectic mix of characters, he learns that first impressions are not always accurate, personalities are not always genuine, and perhaps his mother sheltered him too much—all in all, his own learning in the “school for love.” It’s a coming-of-age story for Felix, but perhaps more interesting are the characters he encounters.

While Felix is the voice of the narrative, the story arguably centers around Miss Bohun. She’s a miserly middle-aged spinster, devoted to her Christian group the “Ever-Readies” (as in, “ever-ready” for the coming of Christ) with intentions that are never as selfless and genuine as she would have them appear. She allows Christian duty to guide her actions though sometimes exhibits very un-Christian behavior. Initially, Felix champions Miss Bohun’s perspective as she deals with other tenants and employees in the house.
The arrival of Mrs. Ellis, a young widow, to the boarding house causes a dramatic shift in Felix’s thought processes. With another opinion present, Felix is caught between the incompatible Miss Bohun and Mrs. Ellis and finds himself questioning the thoughts and opinions of which he had felt so certain. As the discordance escalates, Felix matures and gains independence as he recognizes the flaws in those around him.
The story did not really blow me away, but it was enhanced by a fascinating setting. Jerusalem in 1945 was full of war refugees—people essentially just waiting to get somewhere else. You get the feeling that the people there, the way of life is very temporary. Conflict between Israel and Palestine was in the early stages, and, for the most part, Arabs, Christians, and Jews are peacefully coexisting in the same city. Environment and setting ultimately shape the mentality—thoughts and actions—of the characters. Unfortunately, the novel is extremely character-driven to the point that very little attention was paid to the political setting, which would have been interesting. But I guess that wasn’t the author’s point of focus.

2 comments:

Salvatore said…

Jerusalem '45 really does sound like a fascinating read. I do have to say that if this were set in England (instead of having people waiting to go there) it sounds like a plotline for a Charles Dickens novel.

Salvatore said…

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