I have just finished reading J.M.G. Le Clezio’s historical novel, Wandering Star, which I found to be a compelling, mesmerizing, masterful and brilliant novel.
The two main characters are Esther, also known as Helene, and Nejma. Their stories are told separately, yet blend as one.
Esther is a Jewish girl who is coming of age during the Nazi invasion of France, when her family is forced to flee to the countryside. The village they seek refuge in is under the protection of the Italian military. Within the confines of village life Esther begins to view the lives around her, and we watch her slowly turn from naive girl to a young and aware girl on the border of womanhood.
Her maturity eventually causes her to almost become mother-like and nurturing to her own mother, as they must eventually leave the countryside in order to board a ship so they can make their way to Israel. They are making the journey minus Esther’s father, as he is involved as a Jewish partisan. The trek from the village to the coast where they await the ship is arduous and plays not only on the mother and daughter’s physical strength, but their emotional strength, as well. Esther constantly thinks about her father, and loving moments that she had with him.
She dreams of a reunion with him, of eventually having her family unit together and whole, again. Some of her thoughts and dreams take on almost mystical proportions, and Le Clezio’s ability to write with vivid imagery often overwhelms the senses with poetic beauty. His prose turns from delightful imagery to harsh reality, and back again, leaving the reader wrapped within the pages, unable to stop reading.
Esther and her mother eventually reach Israel. Their ideal “promised land” doesn’t seem to be so promising, initially. Israel is in a state of flux. It is in the midst of its War of Independence, and devastation, destruction and fear surrounds them at every turn. They have left one life of turmoil and surpression for another life under almost similar conditions. Mother and daughter eventually become involved in kibbutz life, each with their own contributions to the whole.
Within the daily life, there is an underlying horror occurring, the atrocities of the Palestinian refugees being herded into camps like cattle. Esther is witness to this, and her path crosses that of a young Palestinian girl named Nejma. Each girl looks the other in the eye, and can almost read the other’s mind. They exchange names on pages of a notebook. They are never to meet again, but each one remembers the other, thinking of them throughout the years.
Nejma’s story is told in the last third of the book. It is relayed to us through her diary, which is an account, not only of her daily life, but the daily struggles involved as a Palestinian refugee repressed within the confines of camp life. From growing up by the sea, to surviving under the adverse conditions of desert terrain, we are a witness to the horrors and genocide of war from a differing perspective and environment, other than that of the Holocaust. We are witnesses to the cultural mores of time and place, and of repression of women.
The air is often stifling, difficult to breathe in, yet Esther and Nejma inhale and exhale as best as they can given their circumstances. They are both survivors, strong, and remain hopeful within the brutalities of life and war. Wandering Star is a metaphor, in my opinion, for displacement and survival under the harshest of circumstances, circumstances that include glimmers of hope for a new beginning and better life.
This message is the brilliance of Le Clezio’s writing. He has an almost innate ability to understand culture clashes, diversity and tradition, and how the differences affect the modern climate. Le Clezio melds the lives of the two girls into one absorbing novel that depicts the similarities that each of them have journeyed through. The scenes and landscape in Wandering Star are bold, beautiful, brilliant, and often surface with mystical and other-worldly illuminations. J.M.G. Le Clezio is extraordinary in his ability to blend two young women and their lives into one story with sensitivity and poetic loveliness is incredible. Their two individual stars illuminate the pages. I highly recommend Wandering Star to everyone.