After all the stories about young men enlisting, three teenage girls head off to join the army in Shani Boianjiu's debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.”
Lea, Avishag, and Yael – who, like all teens, are required to serve a stint the Israeli military after high school – are about as well-suited for army life as “Private Benjamin.” But comedy is about the furthest thing far from Boianjiu's mind.
Antics like Yael, a weapons instructor, seducing her Russian pupil after teaching him to shoot straight, or Avishag stripping in a guard tower, to the bemusement of the Egyptian soldiers watching from binoculars, are offset by grisly events, presented as if through a haze of numbness. Fellow soldiers get knifed at checkpoints while human traffickers are allowed safely through. In the most moving story, Avishag watches through a computer screen as Sudanese refugees are shot by Egyptian soldiers.
Her commander explains, “He said we can't shoot the Sudanese because that would look bad, but we also don't want them here because then we would have to give them jobs, and they bring diseases, and they lower the Jewish rates. So we let the Egyptians shoot them instead because the Egyptians don't care if they look bad because the world already thinks they are bad but forgives them because they are Arabs.”
Boianjiu served in the Israeli Defense Forces and, like Powers, is fluent in mind-numbing tedium punctuated by bursts of horror. The girls gossip, braid each other's hair or, when really bored, grab a frozen I.V. Then people die.
Boianjiu was named by the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35, and “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” is a book with big ambitions, divided in short vignettes focused on each girl. It's not for every reader's tastes, however. Lea's, Avishag's, and Yael's voices are not distinct enough (Yael's is the most recognizable), and there's a surreal episode set in an apparent near future, with Israel in a ground war with Syria, that left this reader baffled. But Boianjiu is clearly a gifted stylist and her first novel easily establishes her as a writer to watch.