The House of Rajani by Alon Hilu

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The House of Rajani by Alon Hilu

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: A controversial Israeli novel about colonisation in Palestine in 1895.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099535997

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The House of Rajani is set in Jaffa, Palestine in 1895-96. The narrative alternates between the two main characters, both telling their stories in the first person. Luminsky and his wife travel from Europe to Jaffa to start a new life there. Luminsky has studied agronomy in preparation for his new life, and he and his wife have both been involved in the Zionist movement promoting an ideal of the Jewish people returning to their homeland. He is looking forward to putting his studies to good use, but is soon disappointed when he arrives by both the quality of the land occupied by Jewish colonists and their work ethic. Far from the ideal of self-sufficiency, they are buying fruit, grain and vegetables from the Palestinians. He is also frustrated by his wife’s lack of interest in having sex with him.

The Rajani family is a wealthy Palestinian landowning family. He meets them in Jaffa and at first is friendly with the young boy Salah and his young widowed mother, Afifa, and later he starts to have a relationship with Afifa. Salah though is troubled with mental health difficulties which include prophetic dreams of betrayal. Luminsky becomes very interested in the Rajani estate, with fertile land and orchards where he could put his education into practice.

I have quite strong opinions of my own on Palestine and Israel and was suspicious of what an Israeli novelist might have to say. I think he is quite critical of his own state’s history and origins, and the novel’s publication in Israel, where he originally used the names of real 19th century historical figures, caused a furore. It won a prestigious literary award, the Sapir Prize, which was later withdrawn, partly on grounds of a family connection which might have prompted one of the judges to be biased, but believed by many to be due to its content, which puts a rather negative spin on Israel’s past.

In fact, what I struggled with most in the novel was the prose style and the characterisation. The translation is by Evan Fallenberg, and I don’t know if the original was the same, but much of the narrative, especially Salah’s sections, is written in very long descriptive sentences.

As for characterisation, the novel lacked any really sympathetic characters, which made it more of a struggle to keep reading. I really disliked Luminsky – he is self important, he complains all the time, and his views of the women in his life, his wife and the other women he becomes involved with, including Afifa Rajani, are repellent. His wife is clearly an intelligent woman, who has trained as a dentist at home in Warsaw, and at first when they come to Jaffa she is supporting them through her practice (I was intrigued and curious that she was able to train and practice, as I think this wouldn’t have been possible in England at that time). A lot of the narrative is taken up with his justification of his actions, which are quite appalling.

Salah was less unsympathetic, but I never warmed to him that much. I don’t think it’s just his mental health issues (and I’m not sure how mad he was) – the long sentences mean his narrative sections just don’t sound conversational. They are telling a story and driving home points about what happened, about the history of the region, but this isn’t believable as the voice of a young teenage boy.

As for other characters, the women in the novel sounded as though they could have been really interesting characters, especially Mrs Luminsky and Afifa, but seen only through the eyes of the male protagonists, they were never fully realised.

The House of Rajani, which tells an interesting and important story, but I found it a bit of a struggle to read. However, it has made me think, and want to read more about the country, and I am glad to have read it.

Thank you to Vintage for sending a copy of this book to The Bookbag.

One of the books I plan to read is another historical novel about the Middle East, Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell. A Senseless Squalid War: Voices from Palestine 1890s to 1948 by Norman Rose is a history of the region. Palestinian Walks: Notes from a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh also looks really interesting.

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