“That’s the thing about animal cries,” the girl said. “About any creature we don’t understand. Some sounds are hostile and others are friendly, but we can’t tell the difference.” – from Wherever You Go, page 68 –
Joan Leegant’s novel is set in Jerusalem and introduces three main characters: Yona Stern who has arrived in the country to try to heal old wounds with her sister Dena (who has embraced a radical West Bank settlement cause); Mark Greenglass, a Talmud teacher who is struggling with his faith and regretting his past mistakes; and Aaron Blinder, a college drop out who has arrived in Jerusalem searching for meaning and discovers a violent fringe group. Although initially unconnected to each other, the three characters’ lives intersect after a senseless act of violence.
Wherever You Go takes a hard look at faith, religion, religious zeal, and the senselessness of violence in the name of God. Leegant takes her time developing the characters, and this was an aspect of the book I appreciated. Each of the characters shares a struggle with faith, although they come to it from vastly different places.
Mark Greenglass is perhaps the most sympathetic character. He has pulled himself free of a drug addiction and become a Talmudic scholar, but he cannot let go of his past. Greenglass struggles to understand why he feels empty despite his strong faith. He regrets that the one woman he has loved is in a spiral of despair and drugs, and that he is unable to help her. As Greenglass looks deep within his heart, he begins to understand what he is missing.
There is was, right in front of him. The truth: Love. He had avoided love his whole adult life. He’d told himself it was because of the religion, that he’d be with a woman only in the proper way, with chaste dates and a correct betrothal, or else that his life was uncertain, too unstable, that it wasn’t the right time or the right place. – from Wherever You Go, page 99 –
Yona is a woman who has made terrible mistakes in her life – one of which has separated her from her sister, Dena, and caused her to devalue herself. She seeks forgiveness from her sister, but is unprepared for what she finds in the West Bank settlement. Dena is living a life of blind faith and radical beliefs, yet her heart is coldly closed to Yona. Through Yona, the reader comes face to face with the sacrifice which people who are dedicated to radical causes make.
Dena gave brisk, unapologetic answers. No, she was not afraid to drive anywhere. Five kids plus a job was not unusual there, children learned early that they were required to help. She was not fearful for them; they were part of something bigger, a higher purpose. What will happen, will happen. What mattered was having a life with meaning. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made. – from Wherever You Go, page 139 –
Finally, there is Aaron. A young man who has grown up in the shadow of the Holocaust through the work of his father – an author who only writes about the hatred of the Nazis toward the Jews. Aaron longs for his father to see him and accept him for who he is, but he feels unworthy. For Aaron, the violence of a fringe group makes him feel he is doing something important.
But the real God was here, in this place, and Aaron knew it. He felt the hand of the Almighty Avenger guiding him, touching him on his very shoulder, looking down at him from this cracked ceiling in this miserable outpost on the edge of the scorpion desert where a hundred battles had been fought and where so much blood had soaked into the earth that even the mountains had turned red. – from Wherever You Go, page 85 –
There is a feeling of relentless inevitability in Leegant’s novel – a feeling that we are on an unavoidable collision course. As the characters move closer together, their paths about to cross, the reader begins to sense doom. It is a feeling all too often experienced when we turn on the nightly news and watch the violence, terror and fear unfolding around the world. What Leegant does in this important novel is give the reader a glimpse into the minds of those who carry out violence in the name of a radical cause. She demonstrates the senselessness of violence; shows us the faces of the victims; and forces us to consider the issues that divide nations and people.
Joan Leegant is a talented writer – a writer who does not shy away from the uncomfortable emotions that arise from religious conflict. Wherever You Go is a provocative novel which will leave readers wondering where, in fact, we are going when it comes to faith and religion. This is a reflective novel and an important look at Jewish extremist groups, although its message could extend to any religious extremist group.
Readers who enjoy historical and literary fiction, or who are interested in the Israeli conflict, will want to pick up a copy of Wherever You Go.
FTC Disclosure: This novel was sent to me by the author for review on my blog.
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