“Sometimes I think things I know are not true.”
Avishag states this to herself, having been called into her commander’s office for almost running over a cliff during a fraught chemical attack simulation, in one of the opening episodes of Shani Boianjiu’s début novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid”. Hearing this line for the second time at the author’s reading at London’s Jewish Book Week on February 26, it seemed as if the sentence and the episode are representative of the atmosphere of the entire novel, which blurs the novelistic divide between fantasy and reality.
When we spoke prior to her talk, Boianjiu acknowledged that her novel walks a “narrow line between reality and the surreal.” It does not fall back on the tricks of magical realism, with people tumbling out of aeroplanes landing safely in the English Channel or, as she put it charmingly, featuring “flying donkeys.” Everything in the book “could technically happen in the physical world,” but at the same time it does not follow that it would. Her book is very much a work of “pure imagination” rather than a reflection of personal experience.
The mood Boianjiu creates is one in which the reader is never quite sure what is real and what is not, particularly as the narrative becomes darker and more fantastical with each episode. The novel is also rather unsettling as its characters endure boredom and repression while manning a West Bank checkpoint or guarding the Sinai border. “One of the most challenging things in life is boredom,” Boianjiu said. The actions of her protagonists are, in part, a reaction to the tedium of military service.