Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 12, 2011

A Pigeon and a Boy (2006), by Meir Shalev, translated by Evan Fallenberg

A Pigeon and a BoyEvery now and again, a book comes along that reminds me just how much my reading has changed since the advent of the internet.  I discovered A Pigeon and a Boy by Israeli writer Meir Shalev because I belong to an online Yahoo book group which focusses on 21st century fiction.  Its members, who come from all over the world, nominate all kinds of books which never see the light of day in local newspaper book reviews, which used to be my sole source of information about new books of interest.

Now I hear about new books from online book groups (I belong to four besides my own ANZ LitLovers group), from Good Reads, and of course from my favourite bloggers (see the blogroll in the RHS menu).  I also get the Australian Book Review , the print version till my subs run out next year and then I’ll be switching to the online edition.  It all means that I read a much more diverse range of books than I used to.

I certainly hadn’t read much fiction set in or about Israel, much less by an Israeli author.  I read Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times when it won the Orange Prize, and I read Exodus by Leon Uris when I was in my twenties, but I’d never read anything written in Yiddish or Hebrew, not even Amos Oz.  Reading A Pigeon and a Boy  has made me realise that there is a new territory of Israeli literature to explore in my reading, limited only by what’s available in translation, or has been written in English.  Oh, so many books, so little time!

A Pigeon and a Boy is a love story really, but not like any you’ve read before.  It takes place during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and the present.  There are links between the two but it would ruin the book for readers to explain what they are.  Suffice to say that Yair Mendelsohn, the central character, makes a life-changing decision to make a home of his own and in the quest to find his own identity makes some interesting discoveries about himself and his family.  Yair, whose father wanted him to become a doctor, instead became a tour guide specializing in bird-watching trips, and there are interesting threads to follow up about different kinds of healing.

The theme of home is integral to the tale, and there are obvious parallels with the Jewish desire for a homeland that meets emotional and spiritual needs.  Some readers in the book group thought this was a bit heavy-handed but it’s probably appropriate for Shalev’s domestic audience.  Readers from within and beyond Israel will also find it interesting to explore the complexities of ‘home’ in the context of Middle East politics – even though Yair’s new home is apparently not anywhere near the contentious settlements, one can’t help but think about the equivalent Palestinian desire for home in this most intractable of conflicts.

There’s a terrific cast of characters but my favourite was the crafty father of Tiraleh.  He is a richly comic character and yet he is also a reminder that grief is an ongoing burden that can never be relinquished.  As Mary Delahunty said in a different context in an author talk I went to at the Woodend Arts Festival, grief is not a journey because there is no destination.  It is rather a burden that can with time become a little lighter.   However in this story we can see the fragility of the Jewish family in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  When trying to rebuild an extended family from pitiful remnants, the death of any family member is a tragedy with additional dimensions and the urge to have children is more urgent.

What was disappointing to me, however, was that Shalev did not have the same kind of understanding about grief that his female characters experienced.  None of his female characters were as deftly rendered as his males: Liora was almost a caricature of the barren career woman juxtaposed with the earthy Tiraleh, who although principal of a construction company seemed able to abandon it and all her responsibilities just as some silly adolescent girls in love drop everything important in favour of the boyfriend.   Yair’s mother behaves in inexplicable and unexplained ways as if women are a great mystery and by inference so irrational that a novelist doesn’t need to tidy up plot ends around them.

On the other hand the motif of the homing pigeons is a brilliant symbol that is used to great effect but its significance should be left for readers to discover for themselves.

More than anything else, it’s a great story and most enjoyable to read.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Meir Shalev
Title: A Pigeon and a Boy
Translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg
Publisher: Schocken, 2009, Kindle Edition
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Amazon

Availability (print editions):
Fishpond: A Pigeon and a Boy


  1. I know what you mean about the internet broadening your reading horizons. There are books I have read over the past few years that I would never have picked up 10 years ago, much less thought of reading. Not sure I could cope with so many online reading groups as you though… I’m very impressed.

    Oh, and this book sounds good. Admittedly I haven’t read much Israeli fiction either. Have you read The Attack by Yasmina Khadra? She’s not Israeli (actually she’s not even a she, she’s a he), but it’s set in that part of the world and is worth reading.


    • Hi Kim, don’t be too impressed by the number of groups. I’ve read most of the choices by the Classics and C19th Lit groups, and often also with C20th Lit so it’s more a matter of lurking and joining in occasionally with those ones. But oh dear, when all three schedule a book I haven’t read, it’s a bit of a struggle to read all of ’em on time!
      I’ll check out the Khadra, did you review it?


    • Straight onto my wishlist – that’s a great review Kim!


  2. Review of The Attack is here:


  3. I agree, the Internet has greatly changed my reading habits. The selection of books to read is entierly net driven these days apart from the occasional newspaper review. This one sounds interesting but I’m rather all Israeled-out at the moment having recently watched a four episode serial on the TV about the Israeli/Palestine conflict.


    • Oh I know what you mean…I get so sick of the endless cycle of attack and counter attack in the middle east, it’s hard to remember that there are real people on both sides who would just like to have peace.


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