Book Review | Before We Say Goodbye

This slim book about the Israel-Palestine conflict admirably provides more questions than answers. Review by Rose Lapira.

Italian journalist Gabriella Ambrosio took on a daunting challenge with her debut novel - translated into English by Alastair McEwan.
Italian journalist Gabriella Ambrosio took on a daunting challenge with her debut novel - translated into English by Alastair McEwan.

Reading across borders could serve as a gateway into other worlds. Hopefully, novels coming from different countries will give us an opportunity to understand more deeply the fears and hopes of other nations.

Italian journalist Gabriella Ambrosio took on a daunting task with her novel Prima di Lasciarsi, translated in English by Alastair McEwan, and published in 2011, with the title Before We Say Good Bye.

This slim book - published under the auspices of Amnesty International UK - deals with the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In the author's note, Ambrosio writes: 'Everyone warned me: if you write this story you'll have to take sides, express a point of view. But a point of view is not a good point of view if it only shows one side of the story. Good books do not supply answers. Good books merely help us to ask questions; more and more questions... It was a challenge to write: it will be a challenge to read'.

The book is inspired by the true story of Ayat al-Akhras and Rachel Levy. It narrates - in fictional form - the final hours of two young girls, one Palestinian, the other an Israeli Jew, whose destinies are bound together when the young female suicide bomber from the Deheisha refugee camp blows herself up in a busy supermarket in Jerusalem, killing the young Jewish girl in the process.

When Dima, an 18-year-old Palestinian student decides to blow herself up she kills not only herself but also the 18-year-old Myriam, and Abraham, a security guard who dies in the attempt to prevent other people from getting killed. Myriam had been spending time away from school mourning the death of her friend Michael, who was killed in an incursion and dreading what can happen to her beloved 19-year-old brother who was conscripted into the army.

Ambrosio attempts to portray the complex realities between Palestine and Israel by showing the different viewpoints of various characters, including Ghassan, a Palestinian explosives expert; Said, Dima's father, a Palestinan working for an Israeli construction company; Vered, an Israeli pacifist and quite a few others. The novel covers a brief time-span, from 07:00 to 14:00, on March 29, 2002, when the horrific explosion occurs.

But does Ambrosio succeed in being impartial?

I would say yes, and by all accounts this seems to be the general view of most.

The author does not take sides and makes no judgment. The book was translated into Hebrew and published in Israel and also translated into Arabic and published in the Palestinian territories and Middle Eastern countries. It became a text book in Italian secondary schools, as well as in several other countries and is used as a subject for debate by both Arab and Israeli Peace Groups.

The book is beautifully written, clear and concise. Ambrosio has made a difficult subject accessible to all, including young people who have a desire to reflect on the terrible plight of these two countries.

I am glad to note that this book is available at the Central Public Library, not only in the adult section but also in the Junior Library.

Before We Say Good Bye reminded me of a novel I had read by French author J.M.G. Le Clezio, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008.

In the novel called Wandering Star, Le Clezio recounts the story of another two young girls: Esther, whose Jewish family is forced by the Nazi invasion to flee from France and after much suffering settles in Israel, and Nejma, a Palestinian girl her own age, who with many others was uprooted, suffered starvation and disease, and transformed into a refugee and forced to live in a camp.

Both girls tried to survive the hardship and suffering imposed on them.  But at the end of the novel, Esther's fate is clearer than that of Nejma.

Having read Gabriella Ambrosio's novel in one sitting - it is brief and very readable despite the subject matter - I was immediately reminded of Le Clezio's novel, which I had read some time back, for there is an obvious thread linking the earlier tragic circumstances of Ester and Nejma in Wandering Star to the later tragic fate of Myriam and Dima in Before We Say Good Bye.

Both writers are conveying and exploring truths. This is not escapist fiction written for entertainment but like all serious fiction, it seeks our engagement.


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