As one ages, one encounters death increasingly often. It’s one of the hardest things about aging. This is currently happening in my life. Three people I know are close to dying, and my husband works at a
hospice facility. I try to learn as much as I can about the experience, its traditions, and how people--both those dying and their loved ones--cope.
The narrative of A Remarkable Kindness is, as blurbs say, centered on a burial ritual in Israel: a sacred burial society--women prepare the women, men prepare the men--for burial. They wash the body, and the dead person is dressed in a simple, plain shroud. Sophie, an 83-year-old member, explains, “The dead are holy. We are closing the circle of life for them. Just think--we’re the very last people to be with them before they’re buried underground.”
The premise of the book intrigued me, as I know little about Israel except the daily news about the warring factions that have existed forever. However, I learned more about women coping (or not) without men and women’s lives in general in Israel than I did about the burial circle.
The story centers on four women friends who all arrived from the U.S. at various times in their lives. They live in a tiny village close to the border of Lebanon. It is 2006. War--and menacing planes--are all around them. This is an intense time of war.
Aviva has lost a son and her husband. Lauren married an Israeli doctor in the U.S.
and moved there but misses her Boston hometown almost constantly. This couple has two children, but will she ever feel comfortable in this exotic, strange country? Although it’s a beautiful landscape with fresh fruit and large flowers, it’s terribly hot most of the time, and its customs are entirely new. Lauren reminisces about their time in Boston to her husband:
'When it snows hard at night, the city is so peaceful and quiet. Remember? It’s like a hush falls over the streets…' Minutes passed. Lauren thought she was somewhere else. Then there was a clap of thunder and she remembered. 'David, are you even listening?'
Divorcee Emily remarries quite quickly, to a silent man who has little to offer except faithfulness. The youngest of the women, Rachel, falls in love with one of the others' sons, again, quite quickly. The four women participate in Jewish ceremonies as they learn Hebrew and have one Muslim friend. They become closer as they engage in the burial ritual.
Although all characters are likeable enough, they each need a man almost all the time to feel worthwhile. This feels old-fashioned. However, the book was set l0 years ago, and apparently, expectations about family and men and women’s roles in Israel are different across many layers of religion and tradition.
Although the story is essentially a good one, it feels like chick lit--even though, of course, the supposed subject is not one that genre would include. The book seems to be aiming at literature but falling quite short of the mark. The four women seem somewhat shallow despite their important work with the dead. Romances for each of them take as many pages--or more--as do the more important death ceremonies. The women fall in love quite quickly, apparently not thinking about long-term consequences (like moving to Israel or living with a farmer husband who obviously has PTSD). Long timespans exist between chapters, and the reader has trouble filling in the gaps.
This is an interesting read, and the reader does learn quite a lot about a certain corner of Israel, but I feel the advance publicity was somewhat misleading. About halfway through the novel, I became disinterested in these women’s romances and wanted to know more about their thoughts on death and rituals.
Author Bletter lives in northern Israel, is the author of two other books, both nonfiction, and participates in such burial traditions.