Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi

"A man never fights because he is strong. He fights because he isn't strong enough."

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait by Boaz Yakin & Nick Bertozzi
First Second, 4 July 2013
400 Pages
Historical Fiction
Graphic Novel
5 Stars
Barnes & Noble; Book Depository; Goodreads

Jerusalem is a sweeping, epic work that follows a single family—three generations and fifteen very different people—as they are swept up in chaos, war, and nation-making from 1940-1948. Faith, family, and politics are the heady mix that fuel this ambitious, cinematic graphic novel.

With Jerusalem, author-filmmaker Boaz Yakin turns his finely-honed storytelling skills to a topic near to his heart: Yakin's family lived in Palestine during this period and was caught up in the turmoil of war just as his characters are. This is a personal work, but it is not a book with a political ax to grind. Rather, this comic seeks to tell the stories of a huge cast of memorable characters as they wrestle with a time when nothing was clear and no path was smooth.

Jerusalem: A Family Portrait, by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi, follows the Halaby family from 1945 until 1948, throughout the entire conflict of making Israel and Palestine into separate nations after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.  I went into the novel knowing hardly anything about the history it reflected, but the author did a really wonderful job of making everything clear without adding any narration to it at all.  Each of the characters and the settings did a more than adequate job tutoring me in the time period.

This graphic novel was unlike anything I've ever read before.  Right from the beginning, it was intense and gritty.  There is no dipping of the toes into the anger, violence, and racism that this story explore as the very first chapter showcases the tension between the Jewish people and the occupying British.  As the story progresses, this relationship falls second to the war between the Jewish people and the Arabs.

At the center of these larger, overwhelming conflicts, is the family of Izak Halaby.  Predominantly, the story focuses on his four sons and the different ways they confront what is happening to their people.  The two oldest brothers, Avraham and David, leave for Europe to fight with the British in World War II.  Rather than following his brothers, Ezra, the middle child, gets involved with the Zionists.  And the youngest boy, Motti, shows a little bit of each brother's ideals.  Each of the three older brothers has his own idea of what is best for the Jewish people, and their choices constantly clash, causing division within the family.

At the same time, Izak's older brother, Yakov, is bringing his brother's family into financial ruin while he grows steadily wealthier.  Though Yakov is not a key character throughout the story, the effects of his bitterness toward Izak ripple throughout the family, causing tension between Izak and his wife and a defiant friendship between Motti and his cousin, Jonathan.

Each of the four brothers was fleshed out so fully and complexly.  I found myself feeling conflicted about each of them, as each carried his own virtues and flaws.  Even the minor characters in the story made me feel so much ambivalence as I couldn't completely hate them or love them, no matter how much I wanted to because they weren't written simply enough to reduce down to just one feeling.

I found myself struggling with Avraham more than any other character.  Truly, I wanted to hate him.  But I couldn't because I understood him, even if I loathed his actions.  I saw his desire for peace for Arabs and Jews alike that made him turn to Socialism.  I understood that his harsh treatment of his family, especially Motti, was for their protection.  I wanted to painted him as a coward, but he was truly just an idealist.

Motti was my favorite character, however, and it wrenched my heart to watch as his childhood innocence got stripped away.  I loved his boldness and courage and how it was balanced by his heart and consideration.  He was passionate but pure, and I found him to be a refreshing character.

There were a few parts in the plot that didn't sit well with me, however.  I mean, nothing in the story was easy, but a few things didn't align.  Chiefly, I had a difficult time suspending belief enough to accept Jonathan's relationship with his cousin, Devorah, as well as the decision he makes regarding his father's feud with his Uncle Izak.  Jonathan and Devorah didn't have enough interaction to form any type of believable friendship.  And the entire development of his character completely contradicted the decision he makes at the end of the novel.  I don't believe he would have done what he did.

And the very end of the novel, after the war has ended, was so artistically told, the pacing so deliberately heartbreaking.  The flow of panels at the end was my favorite part, even if the conclusion was so absolutely sorrowful.

The art in the novel is not beautiful, but I think that is appropriate for the story line.  It's stark in its blacks, greys, and whites, and the darkness of each panel reflects its content.

This book not only educated and entranced me, it truly moved me.  It really opened my eyes as to the complexities of war, and seeing them play out within a singular family group made them even more resounding.  The human condition and morality (or suspension of during war) were all beautifully and painfully explored.  I found myself thinking about the book and the characters even after I set it aside.

I give this a very strong 5 out of 5 stars, and I would recommend it to any mature reader.