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Caroline LeavittSkolkin-Smith's brilliant debut novel is a hypnotic meditation on the ever-changing boundaries of love and need.
— Boston Globe
"Want some chocolate?" My mother held an 18-ounce duty-free bar of Hershey's almond chocolate under my nose. "It's seven more hours until we reach Tel Aviv, will you survive?"
"No," I said.
That summer, Jordan had given the few Israeli descendants of the ancient city permission to dig up the graves on the Mount of Olives and transport the souls and skeletons of their lost ones to the other side of the border.
My mother, my sister, Ivy and I sat on a packed El Al plane on our way to Jerusalem to participate in a ceremony for an uncle I had never met.
Dot Elizar had been buried, my mother said, in the mixed cemetery among the Arab and Jewish war heroes before the War of Independence divided the city. Now he was going to be dug up and reburied in the new Jerusalem. The Ceremony of the Graves was to take place near the President's House.
Why should I have cared about my uncle Elizar? For many years, we had not visited Israel, though my mother had grown up there, in the rugged and hot geography of what was known in the 1930s as: Palestine. I remembered only vaguely going there as a baby,its hot sun and my mother's childhood house on a limestone street behind some eucalyptus trees.
It was June, 1963, I was fourteen years old, and it was two years after my father's suicide. My mother planned for a long stay in Jerusalem.
My mother had never spoken about her brother Elizar or old Jerusalem. The faces of World War II's displaced persons and their refugee boats on the Mediterranean Sea did not appear in the same photographs my mother showed me of herself in Palestine. A playful little girl with short red hair, wearing boy's khaki shorts and hiking boots. The rest of my mother's history I had put together loosely from other pictures she kept in the basement of our Northern Westchester home-glimpses of letters and more photographs of my mother, Ada Silberfeld, the bigheaded woman, hugging the cedars trees of Abu Tor during the bombings and shellings that shook the quiet streets of Jerusalem by 1946. She had married my father, an American, after coming over to New York Harbor with a chaperone, on a War Brides ship from Haifa.
Now she separated the chocolate squares into chunky shards with her stubby fingers, pushing pieces at the back of her mouth, and making a loud sucking noise. "The travel agent was such an idiot," she said, pulling at her tent dress. Her legs were bare and her summer jacket was on backwards, the Bonwit Teller label glistening in the soft plane light. "But she did tell me we will land somewhere in Europe for a few hours, for the plane to get more fuel."
"In Paris?" I asked. "Paris? Why Paris? No, I am sure it will be in Switzerland. It will not even be worth it to get off the airplane, Liana. But maybe they will have some good Swiss chocolate on the plane for a change, that is if the stewardesses get off to go make pee-pee in the airport there."
"Oh." I let the airplane magazine I had on my lap slide to the floor with the unspoken embarrassment I felt sitting next to her.
We had been in the air for several hours and the outside atmosphere was changing into a velvety cloak of black and white. The odor of fresh almonds and hardened cocoa from my mother's chocolate permeated the enclosed air, as if the bar were breathing, exhaling a warm, luscious scent.
"What's the matter, Liana?" My mother licked her upper lip with her browned tongue and then folded the silver foil over the remaining chocolate in her hand. "Talk to me darling," she said.
Her kindness pained me. I wished I could return it but I couldn't. I wished I was happy about it but I wasn't. I did not want her attention. I had come to prefer her neglecting me, demanding nothing of me but to show up when she thought something she did-like preparing dinner for Ivy and me that night, or asking me once if I needed some fresh bath towels-might be as important as it used to be, before.
The splinters of chocolate had settled on her chest as if they were the jewelry pieces meant to go with her loose outfit and manners. "Aren't we stopping off somewhere else?" I asked.
"Look Liana," my mother whispered into my ear. "We aren't going to tell anyone in Israel about the accident."
Some time after midnight on a mild summer night, my father had catapulted off a country road in Katonah in his blue MG sports car, crashing into the woods. There had been letters back and forth between my father and his former psychiatrist which, found, proved he had been thinking about ending his life, of letting go of the ivory steering wheel of his MG just that way. It had all been like some premeditated murder on Perry Mason.
On the airplane wall, by the entrance towards the pilot and his cockpit, was a clock like they had in my junior high school. The giant utility of timekeeping made me think about the days to come, how slow they would go.
The lights inside the plane dimmed to signal the approach of night.
Silhouetted against the shiny sides of the coach in the first four rows of seats were a group of dark-suited Hasidic men and their families. Their curly black beards and side locks made them look like shadowed rag dolls. Six or seven crates of their duty-free Smirvoff vodka bottles were stashed under their seats. In 1963, the plane cabins were small and packed with as many duty-free articles from the airport store as passengers could carry on with them. Chocolate, laundry detergent, Winston cigarette cartons and other untaxed items from Idlewild airport cluttered the plane. I studied the Hasidic men. Too fatherly, their bodies so close, like it was with my mother. A nightmare of fathers in the wrong attire. They bobbed and jiggled and splashed their messy outbursts of affection onto their make-up-less wives, their pale children. The vodka and their full laughter-where were we going? To what world before? It was completely without my father. And had nothing to do with Ivy or me.
I looked around my mother at my sister seated in the opposite aisle seat. After my father's funeral, Ivy had started collecting records of incantations from India or Africa, with record jackets on which cameo pictures of spiritual amulets and naked black Warriors would appear. She also made notations onto little index cards she took from the high school library stack about the Amish who lived in some of the colonial farmhouses further down the road from us. She put a motto up on her bedroom wall in Westchester which read: "The Amish people live kindly and decently. They love what is . . . and are joyful." She had already tried marijuana and knew about the places in the woods in Katonah we could take some six packs of Colt 45 malt liquor, and consider the all-embracing energy waves of nature. We drank nips of Southern Comfort, too, in the cold, raking through the Westchester snowdrifts in large rubber boots where sometimes the rocks were stained with deer blood, fallen fragile and beautiful animals. We had searched for hunter's tracks, to find enemies. We had to be careful about how we moved about now, Ivy had said, and about what we said, about what secret thoughts swam in our brains, in case it had been our bad spiritual vibrations that had made my father leave us, or that had made him do what he did.
Now Ivy was sipping from a container of Tropicana orange juice she bought at the duty-free shop while we waited for our flight. Ivy was sixteen. She was taller than me, with long, chestnut hair and a thin, difficult face-small-eyed and sharp. Her long body gave off the odor of cigarettes and soap. My moods were as changeable and labile as my mother's, they darkened or lightened. Ivy often prided herself on not being one of us at all and could easily establish her emotional residence elsewhere.
Once my mother was safe again, with her first family, and if I planned it right, I could find a way to leave. I would find the places my father told me about in Paris. I could wire back to my sister and she could come, too. I will enjoy that, I thought, pulling my sister out with me. Somehow, I thought I would stay in Israel for only as long as it took me to find enough money to get to Paris, to what I knew of the famous streets that could be described in the large, sensual words Marcel Proust had brought my father and me when I was still too young to understand what they meant. Lyrical overtures about the loveless and abandoned. I had no knowledge of airfares, but I believed the situation, all of us being in Israel, once the plane landed, could be undone if I acted forcefully enough.
After my father's "accident," my mother could not recognize herself in the picture of her life. If the white drifts on the ground were tall and thick, she would let me stay home from school. She lay silent in the house in Katonah, ringing her hands under her bed sheets, stunned and outraged as if it was just at that moment that she heard the news of my father's death. And then she would look at me, look appealingly to me. She grew more careless about herself as time went on. Her body was usually without undergarments which gave the sheets a hot, wettish odor. Her hair and face creams gave off a strong, fruity smell and tempered the raw coarse aromas that got loose from her flesh. And then her strength appeared more muscular in its war against grief and distress than I had ever seen it. I wanted to be near it. Sometimes I stayed home from school and she took me into bed with her. We watched television in her bed together: "Our Miss Brooks" and "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," "Queen for A Day." We watched a chimpanzee at Cape Canaveral complete his one day space flight towards the moon. I believed I knew what we were doing together those long, housebound mornings and afternoons. We were preparing for the possibility that there would never be another man in our lives, that we better get used to it being just us.
"Look." My mother adjusted herself in her seat, reached into the left pocket of her tent dress and whisked out an envelope my aunt had sent her from One Metaduleh Street. She pulled out three recent photographs, fanning them out with her fingers like a trick deck of cards and holding them in front of my eyes. There was Jerusalem, "The Border Confused City," the 1963 Life magazine article called it. My mother had left the article on my bedroom bureau in Katonah. "In a Pentateuchal sense of the word," said the article I read that night two weeks ago, "Jerusalem is a geography that is everywhere a matter of more or less chaos, looking still like a Biblical place where the sea had not yet separated from the sky and the land was not yet."
I had looked up "Pentateuchal" in the dictionary and had not even found a definition for that.
Now I stared at her photographs. The white Jerusalem houses with their fences of barbed wire and warning signs in the fields; the powerful, endlessly complex hills and recesses; the naked desert-like earth and pearl-gray edifices whose boundaries were as open to interpretation and vulnerable to disintegration as lines drawn into the dust.
My mother put the photographs back in the envelope and slid them into her dress pocket but, when she shifted in her seat, they spilled to the floor. The reading light passed through her uncombed hair. "My sister Esther inherited the house on Metaduleh Street," she started to explain. "Did I ever tell you how it was in Israel? Now Esther is married to Yakov Hendel, who lives in my father's house with her. And your grandmother. I think Yakov is only in the ministry of hostels, a low position and he doesn't have much money of his own. What a shame for Esther when all of our friends married diplomats or generals after the war and built their own houses."
"I think you told me all this already," I said.
"You look like him."
"Like my brother, Elizar. When you were born, I swore it was Elizar come back to me."
I looked down at the floor, trying to see if any other photographs had spilled there.
"Get some sleep," my mother said. "We will be there before you know it. You must learn to be a survivor, Liana. Do you want me to take your hand in mine. Will it calm you?"
Two summers ago, my mother lay on the bed in Katonah, rolled up in the white sheets and pillow, and stuffing handfuls of them into her mouth, biting them in a rage of grief as my father sat at the desk table where he worked in the bedroom, reading the newspaper. There had been a fight. It was about money, and how the car he had bought was "theatrical" and "weak" like him, the blue MG which had stirred her into a tirade. It was not like other fathers' cars at the train station, she said. I heard them from the hall.
"Can't you do anything to quiet your mother?" asked my father when I walked into the room. He folded the newspaper page and read the next column. He wore tortoise-shelled half-glasses and smelled of Balkan Sobraine pipe tobacco. "She wants you."
"I can't cope with your father when he gets like this," said my mother. She looked at him the way she would at a long-suffering child.
He said, "I can't stand it either. I'm sorry." He put down the newspaper and went out the door.
I went to my mother.
She unhooked her bra and her breasts fell out. "Stroke me. Do that, Liana," she said. Her hair was like a mashed apricot, still wet from the shower and the curls were dripping. "I told you to touch me," she said. I put my hand on the small of her back, on the sweaty, dangerous flesh. "Lower," she said. The sheets dropped from her hand and her underwear was large and oily. She pointed to a spot above the rim of her panties. Calgon Bouquet bath powder and slick bath oil shone on her ribs. A thin but sugary sensation passed through me. I recognized it as love's involuntary and indiscriminate reflex. But disgust and humiliation, too.
I heard my father go down the stairs and I stroked her. I breathed in the hot leak of my mother's pain. I did not get up to see where my father was going. I was a traitor to him, lost in the heat of the night. I lay beside my mother, putting my head down on the pillow where there were still some strands of his hair. The front door downstairs slammed. My father went to the garage and I heard his car in the gravel driveway, the road out.
I picked up the pillow the stewardess had given me at the beginning of the flight and put it on my lap. The air was stuffy, it seemed dirty.
My mother was blinking her wide brown eyes at me. "I'm having a bad time in my sleep again, you know," she said. "Not because we are finally out of Katonah, but because when I close my eyes, I dream of what happened that made us leave our house in the first place. Now, leave it. Stop this whole discussion." Often my mother talked as if someone else was in the conversation she was having with herself. She beat at the pillow strapped onto her seat. "I have to sleep. I have to be strong and think clearly when we get to Israel. Oh, you and your father talk so high on your kite," she slipped her tongue over one of the expressions she had picked up in Katonah, only it was from my father this time, not a television show.
I looked for the stewardess who had given us the pillows and my only coke. She had vanished for good behind the curtains by the lavatories. Beyond us, deep white cigarette clouds billowed from the mouths of the other passengers unable to sleep, smoke puddled above the empty aisle.
The cabin light made a mirror out of the plane window. I stared back into a face that still looked like some brownie scout, the bobbed and nut-colored haircut, too round eyes. I had left the bulk of my belongings in a bag over our heads on our luggage rack, but I had my small purse, filled with the overwrought make-up designed to put on my face like the evil eye. Rough and powdery brush foundation, mascara, and the eyebrow pencil that cut black lines under my eyelids. I could be off with everything I owned in a matter of minutes if the chance arose. Among my skirts and sneakers were all my folders filled with poems and scraps from books, like the things I imagined the people in my father's books kept, the people who fled to snow-covered mountains in Europe, to recover from tuberculosis and other illness. I can't say I was certain that the best way I would rejoin him would be by taking own my life, but the notion of suicide hooked into my imagination. It seemed like a gracious thing to do, if you didn't lose your nerve. The thought stayed over, and, now and again, came to call. The idea that there were cathedrals and pleasure houses in Paris where sitting under pristine stained glass I could touch my father again became very real to me as time went on, or that I could jump back into the undefined dreamy splendor of my father's promised land, back into the way things used to be.
Excerpted from EDGES by Leora Skolkin-Smith Copyright © 2005 by Leora Skolkin-Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted January 13, 2006
This unusual novel has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award for Fiction. It is a brave first work, navigating the sexual awakening of a young woman and her turbulent relationship with a mother who was born during a tumultous time in Israel's early history.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 28, 2005
I enjoyed Leora Skolkin-Smith's powerful debut novel 'Edges' very much. It's a deeply felt and authentic book written in lyrical and compelling language, telling a universal story about mothers and daughters. The geography of Israel is especially memorable and Leora Skolkin-Smith is very gifted at expressing complex emotional moments, and a young woman's emerging sexuality.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 12, 2005
I was most impressed with this novel -- vivid, pungent personalities, rigorous literary architecture, wonderful sense of place in israel (i have been there). memorable piece of work!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 17, 2005
'I'd like to tout Leora Skolkin-Smith's new novel, Edges: O Israel O Palestine. It's about the adventures of an adolescent girl in Israel in the early '60s. Her character's mother had grown up in British Mandate Palestine, one of several factors making the memory bank of this book so rich -- appropriate for a place with almost too much history to bear and retain one's sanity at the same time. What is most memorable to me is the sense of place that Ms. Skolkin-Smith has achieved -- the sunny and scary Jerusalem and countryside -- and the hope, love, hate and fatalism of the groups, Palestinian and Israeli, living amongst and apart from each other in a thin, rocky, brilliantly bright corridor too rarely shaded by old gray- green olive trees. Perhaps above all, the novel, told with restraint and poetic precision, is about how we shoulder on (and wing it) under the weight of history -- family and public.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 19, 2005
Bonna Stovall (Massachusetts) - See all my reviews Leora Skolkin-Smith's 'Edges' shouts metaphorically. When her father suicides, fourteen-year old Liana leaves her protected (if torturous) N.Y. suburb with her mother...and sails right into our world. An edgy world of tense borders, barbed wire. A world where soldiers and children are endangered species. In the mother s old home in Jerusalem the family lingers around the traditional Friday evening meal. Liana watches this marooned island of love and civility, each one damaged in their own way--an uncle with a stump where there had been a leg, the mother giggly with memories of runnng bullets in her bras and and panties when she was fourteen. 'Edges' has been called a coming-of-age novel. But I consider it not just as the struggle of one fourteen year old's girl for identity but the artist's stuggle to comes to grips with gender and violence. Skolkin-Smith offers us something human and whole: fourteen year old Liana leaving the dense-with-war Jeurusalem to make of its dangerous borders a glade, the forest primeval, the Mediterranean-flicked hillside of her own 'personal'. She soon learns that she is her own country,Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2005
Where, and how and to whom do we really belong? Skolkin's brilliant debut novel is a hypnotic meditation on the ever-changing boundaries of love and need. A coming of age story of the bond between a young American and her powerful mother, etched in a wartime Mideast as shifting and dangerous and mysterious as the Israeli desert.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2005
When I was offered the chance to read this novel as an uncorrected proof, I accepted at once. I'd been hearing a 'buzz' that it was something special. Leora Skolkin has written a truly beautiful...and beautifully crafted...novel. Every scene pulled me further into the story and held me captive. Skolkin has a gift shared by few writers: she's able to craft a single phrase that tells an entire story. I learned as much about the characters in one sentence as some authors convey in a chapter. Tight writing, nothing wasted, the purest form of literature. I was sure that I knew where the story was headed...and I was wrong. Every page will surprise.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.