The People of Forever Are Not Afraid – Shani Boianjiu

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is the story of three young women – Lea, Avishag and Yael. At the beginning of the novel, they are three school friends sitting in an Israeli classroom.

We finished the history of the world in tenth grade. In our textbook, the pages already speak to us of 1982, just a few years before we were born.

History is almost over.

The girls spend their time writing notes to each other that must have ‘the word “fuck” in each sentence’ and trying to find places in the town where they can get mobile phone reception.

The adults in the town work:

…in the company in the village that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that make planes, or [go] to college so [they can] later be paid more to work in the company in the town that makes parts that go into machines that help make machines that make planes…

But before that, aged 18, they are conscripted into the army and this is the fate that awaits our three young women.

We see Avishag go through training, determined to be strong, possibly in an attempt to avenge the death of her brother following the end of his service. Lea become a blue beret – the military police unit – spending her days at a checkpoint and making up an entire life for a man who passes through each day. And Yael become an expert shooter, teaching young men how to shoot accurately and then sleeping with them between breaking-up and getting back together with her boyfriend at home.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid explores both what it’s like to be a young woman, finding yourself and your place in the world and what it’s like to be a young woman in the army: the horrors involved; coping mechanisms; the treatment you receive from men.

This is an impressive debut. The characters are interesting, the subject matter’s engaging and watching the changes that take place in the young women throughout and following their time in the army is fascinating. There are moments that are very funny, there are also moments that are shocking and horrific, showing the extent that war has affected these people.

However, I do have an issue with the structure of the book. Although the story of each of these women is told from their school days to their recruitment to their reintegration into civilian life, their stories are fragmented and, although I can see an argument for saying that Boianjiu did this to show how the war has fragmented their lives and their minds, it made this seem more like a collection of interlinked short stories than a novel. Each chapter could easily stand alone. I’m not criticising the treatment of these stories as such, just that I think my approach to a collection of interlinked short stories is different to my approach to a novel and having some sense of what I might be reading before I begin aids, rather than hinders, my reading experience.

I am aware by suggesting that this is a short story collection, some people will be put off reading it (this is why UK publishers have a tendency to market this sort of book as a novel) but I’m hoping it won’t. Boianjiu is a talented writer and I look forward to reading whatever she produces next.