The Hilltop

By Assaf Gavron

(Scribner, $26, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Assaf Gavron, whose parents were immigrants to Israel from England, grew up near Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv.  He has published seven books and has won national and international awards, including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Book fur die Stadt award in Germany, and the Prix Courrier International award in France and the Bernstein Prize, a prestigious Israeli honor.

What is this book about?

A trenchant, tender story, which some are calling “the Great Israeli Novel,” The Hilltop is set in a West Bank settlement in Israel, a tiny hamlet  the government officially says does not exist yet covertly supports. A Palestinian village sits nearby, watching as the residents of Ma’aleh Hermesh C plant crops and expand their housing and quietly dig in. Among them are a farmer, Othniel, who has the smarts to outwit government bureaucracy, and brothers Gabi and Roni, who grew up on a kibbutz before one became very religious and the other became very rich working on Wall Street but is now very poor. Roni comes up with a plan involving olive oil sales to the foodies of Tel Aviv, a Washington Post reporter discovers the illegal village and soon a major diplomatic kerfuffle is underway.  Can – should – this village survive?

Why you’ll like it:

Israel and its policies and prime minister are very much in the news these days, and increased (and some would say unwelcome) attention is being given to the issue of West Bank settlements, a major point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters worldwide, and one that underlies the animosities boiling in the Middle East. From this thorny and perhaps impenetrable tangle of claims and counterclaims, Gavron has fashioned a smartly satirical tale that, though fiction, gets right to the heart of the people, provocations and political battles whose outcomes will not only affect Israel but also the nations who aid  or abhor it. That he makes this book as funny as it is serious is a tribute to this author’s skill.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Behind the headlines in the turbulent Middle East are ordinary people living their lives, raising families, and struggling to get ahead. Israeli author Gavron focuses on such individuals in a West Bank settlement. The novel begins when Othniel Assis stakes a claim on a remote patch of land and starts growing vegetables. Soon he is joined by others, among them brothers Gabi and Roni, whose personal histories are an important focus of the novel. The community continues to grow, babies are born, the years go by, but the settlement’s status as an illegal entity lacking the necessary permits continues to endanger its existence. At some point, a high-ranking minister declares that they must evacuate, an order residents ignore as they have all previous orders. Then the army arrives and precipitates the final conflict. VERDICT Gavron expertly works with a large cast of characters to create a resonant portrayal of life at the center of one of the world’s main trouble spots. His depiction of the community’s religious practices and the reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the neighboring Arab village and their age-old lifestyle and customs are particularly effective. Despite the highly charged political and cultural arenas in which it is set, this novel, an award winner in Israel, is very funny and entertaining.”

“In The Hilltop, Gavron’s unique gift is on full display in all of its eccentric, genre-bending glory. He treads the line between the serious and the absurd, the tragic and the comical, the sincere and the satirical, and creates a sweeping, complex story that raises more questions than it provides answers,” says Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner).

“Sardonic and engaging. . . . Gavron excels at unmasking the contradictions that characterize Israeli society. . . . His hilltop may be fictionalized, but it embodies, perhaps more than any journalistic or documentary attempt in recent years, the mechanisms by which extremism crosses over and adopts the bureaucratic language and signifiers of the officially sanctioned,”  says the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“A unique attempt to consider the phenomenon [of illegal settlements] not from a merely political point of view, but as a tale of human endeavor, in all its glory and its folly,” says The Jerusalem Post.

Publishers Weekly says:  “This memorable novel by Gavron follows the fate of a small, not-quite-legitimate Israeli settlement in the West Bank and its denizens. Othniel Assis and a few associates founded Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the recent past, both despite and with the aid of various Israeli bureaucracies. While the primary story line charts the course of the settlers’ fight against the inevitable barrage of eviction notices and subsequent reversals, Gavron moves beyond simple political farce by weaving together the stories, both simple and complex, of individual characters. He particularly focuses on the kibbutznik brothers, the spiritual Gavriel Nehushtan and businessman Roni Kupper, who arrive at Ma’aleh Hermesh C at different times and in different circumstances. “Longing is the engine of the world,” one character says. Indeed, Gavron’s novel is marked by its great depth of feeling and its disparate themes, which are united by the longing of its characters.”

Says a starred Kirkus Review: “Writing with crisp insight and dry humor, Israeli author Gavron tells a lively tale of life in an embattled Jewish settlement . . . Gavron’s sardonic yet sage story. . . focuses on an ever expanding community of observant Jews that populates the West Bank settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh C. Bit by bit—a new mobile home here, a spare room fashioned from a shipping container there, a new playground for the kids (funded by a deep-pocketed Miami macher), maybe some improvements for the synagogue or day care center (Jewish workmen only, please)—these settlers, who consider themselves modern-day pioneers, gradually establish ever more permanent footing as the government either looks the other way, threatens to evacuate, or (despite the fact that the settlement may not officially exist) boosts their infrastructure and provides protection, depending on the moods and whims of those in power on any given day. Through it all, Ma’aleh Hermesh C’s motley assortment of residents contends with the stuff of life—babies are born, marriages break up, business ideas bloom and die, teenagers come of age and struggle to grasp where they stand. Within the vast cast of characters, two brothers, Roni and Gabi Kupper, orphaned as infants, raised on a kibbutz, are central. . . . Slowly and incrementally, like those settlers on that craggy West Bank hilltop, Gavron’s story gains a foothold in our hearts and minds and stubbornly refuses to leave.”

Booklist says: “This many-storied, funny, shrewd, and tender satire dives into the heart of Israel, a land of trauma and zeal, fierce opinions and endless deliberation. From failed marriages to governmental dysfunction to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gavron’s spirited desert saga embraces the absurd and the profound and advocates for compassion and forgiveness, even joy.”

When is it available?

This timely novel can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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