A Remarkable Kindness
A Remarkable Kindness: A Novel by Diana Bletter. (William Morrow, 416 pp. $14.99)
The title of this ambitious, compassionate tale of four women who love, lose and rededicate themselves to life refers to a “solemn, ancient, sacred” burial ritual, a hesed shel emet, the truest act of kindness. It is described by a rabbi in the book as the greatest mitzva because “the dead can never thank you.” Jewish communities have always had burial societies, as Aviva—the oldest and strongest of the American-born quartet—points out. But in agricultural, seaside villages such as Peleg in northern Israel, where the story takes place, such care to cleanse, dress and pray over a body by strangers as well as friends constitutes a hallowed rite that ironically can bring about a renewed appreciation of living.
It is not apparent in the novel, however, that this rite is anything other than a slim narrative device. The more absorbing sections of the book focus on the individual women, their different backstories and current situations, which are told in alternating chapters. The women bond at the burial rite, but might have done so elsewhere.
Aviva, a former intelligence agent and now a teacher, has lost a son to war and her beloved husband to a heart attack. Lauren, a nurse from Boston, is married to an Israeli doctor yet cannot adjust to her new land and its deprivations. Emily, her vivacious college roommate from Boston whose husband dumped her, quickly married Boaz who cannot break away from Holocaust memories.
The youngest, Rachel, a university graduate from Wyoming who made aliya to realize her dreams, falls in love with Aviva’s remaining son.
It’s unfortunate that such a sympathetic, insider look at the complexities of village life in Israel in the summer of 2006, on the eve of war, does not prove dramatically compelling. A recurrent subject-verb-predicate sentence structure embraces all manner of talk and action, and at times sentiment is awkwardly forced, as when Aviva climbs into her empty bed and listens to the gusts of wind rattling the trees and pushing back the waves:
“She couldn’t tell if it was her heart or the sea that lay knocked down, splayed and whimpering under the starless sky.”
Bletter is an experienced, award-winning writer, but A Remarkable Kindness, for all its rich detail—and perhaps too much domestic chitchat and observations that do not advance the narrative—becomes somewhat plodding and predictable. The restorative moment of joy that may mitigate tragedy is declared rather than earned. Do things happen for a reason or not? The women have different takes, but they don’t argue the differences as a way to explain or affect their actions.
Despite these reservations, A Remarkable Kindness impresses with its loving look at an extraordinary country eternally besieged, and its deeply felt theme that women should stay the hard course, if possible, and find or reclaim love in the face of death.