Review Blog

Jul 31 2008

Message in a bottle by Valerie Zenatti

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Bloomsbury, 2008. ISBN 9780747590446
Unless you have recently arrived from Mars or even further afield, you would know that the Middle East presented one of the more intractable problems of the 20th Century, and still no resolution in sight. Message in a bottle is an attempt to personalize the conflict and connect the reader to the essential humanity of the ordinary person caught on either side of the divide.

The novel is a two-hander, the protagonists being a 17-year old Israeli girl and a 20-year old Palestinian male living in Gaza. Initial contact was made through Tal Levine, the Israeli girl, putting a note with her email address in a bottle, and getting her soldier brother to drop it in Gaza. The narrative then progresses through 'direct-to-camera' thoughts and email correspondence of Naim, aka 'Gazaman', and Tal. Although the novel doesn't provide a magic formula, in fact remarks that 'history is relentless, it doesn't think about people who want a quiet life, it just grinds on, sometimes breaking everything in its way', there is an up-beat conclusion.

Recent studies discussed on Radio National's The Book Show have claimed that readers of fiction experience a deeper empathy and understanding of our shared humanity compared to non-readers or even readers of non-fiction, and I think the novel is quite successful in this. Here is Tal explaining to her boyfriend the realities of what it's like to witness a suicide bombing:
'the TV doesn't let you smell the smell, or hear the silence, that second of silence straight after the explosion, the second when everyone's dazed, petrified. And then the screams, the moans, the sobbing, the groaning, they all cry like little children, the injured, even if they're fifty years old.'

This is very powerful, although the writing of Tal's inner thoughts at times is a bit clunky and cringe-making, possibly a result of the translation (from French). The novel Broken Bridge (by Lynne Reid Banks, 1994 re-issued 20007) deals with similar subject matter, but with far more nuanced characters and developed narrative. However it is a much longer book: if your students require a shorter read, I would certainly recommend Message in a bottle. (Would also recommend a lovely recent movie, The band's visit, about an Egyptian Police Orchestra visiting Israel, but accidentally stuck overnight in a small-town backwater.)
Peter Helman

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