A Pigeon and a Boy, Meir Shalev, Pantheon Books, 2007
translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
A Pigeon and a Boy is a beautifully written, very moving novel by Israeli author Meir Shalev. It tells two connected stories of love and longing: that of Yair, a tour guide in modern Jerusalem whose marriage is disintegrating and who has recently lost his mother; and that of The Baby, a homing pigeon handler tragically killed during the 1948 War Of Independence.
Home is a central theme of the novel. The characters, each in their own way, long for a past home or seek a home not yet found. Yair is unsuitably married to American Liora: Liora is wealthy, her family employs him, she decorates his home in a way that makes him feel unwelcome, she does not understand his desire to explore nature, she has come to reject him entirely. Yair's mother never felt comfortable in her married home either - she has always missed her home city of Tel Aviv, and wishes to be buried with a view of it. Before she dies, she gives Yair the money to go purchase a house of his own, that he he may find the true home she never had, and begin to forge a new life apart from Liora.
The Baby is another displaced soul, left by his father to be raised on a kibbutz by his aunt and uncle. When a pigeon handler for the Palmach (army) arrives, he is fascinated and quickly learns to handle homing pigeons himself. The Baby meets the Girl, they fall in love, and send their romantic messages by pigeon post. She and the pigeons become his emotional home. Throughout the book, the homing pigeons also symbolize the desire of a people for a country to call home: "who but the Jewish people returning to their homeland can better appreciate the tremendous yearning of the pigeon for her home and homeland."
Grief is inextricably entwined with the characters' memories of and needs for home, and the reader feels their grief deeply along with them. Yair grieves the loss of his mother, and lovingly recalls the details of his childhood - how they would enter a house together, the food she prepared, how she made lists, etc. He grieves for the children he wished to have but who did not survive to be born. A close family friend grieves the loss of his son, Yair's peer, killed in service in the Israeli army. The Baby grieves for his mother who has died, and for his relationship with his father. We all grieve for The Baby, whose death we learn about in the first chapter of the book, but to whom we grow strongly attached through the rest of the novel.
Shalev's writing is lovely to read. The story is captivating and his descriptions of Israel made me want to travel there and experience the sea, the trees, the birds, and the countryside firsthand. I was drawn to the tenderness that Yair feels for his mother. I found the romance that evolves between The Baby and The Girl, and their love letters delivered by pigeon, to be exquisite:
...yes and yes and yes and yes. Yes we are in love, yes we miss you, yes we have not forgotten, yes we remember..... after a love letter brought by a pigeon, the sender and the addressee would never again consent to any other type of postman.
When Shalev described the birds being dispatched, I could practically see the graceful gestures of the handlers as they released the birds into the air, and as they watched intently until the birds were out of sight. The only thing I did not love about this book was that toward the very end, and after the emotional climax of the book, it was a bit drawn out and lost a little of its grip.
I also enjoyed reading this novel from a cultural perspective. Most of the books I read are by American authors, or perhaps British authors - so rarely are they from other places in the world. It was an excellent exercise to take myself out of this comfortable zone of familiarity. In this novel, "American" (as embodied by the wife, Liora) becomes Yair's foil in a sense, clarifying to Yair and the reader all that Yair is not. In the ultimate example of their mismatched values, Yair goes to check on his mother's grave in a rainstorm. When his wife Liora scolds him that in America no one would do such a thing, he replies "here, the sons are better." Food for thought!
I strongly recommend this book for anyone who would be enchanted by a letter that arrived by pigeon.