Eshkol Nevo imagines family lives and parenting problems that are infinitely relatable..
(photo credit: RICK NEASE/TNS)
Eshkol Nevo, in his astoundingly moving new book, Three Floors Up, brilliantly captures how the landscape of a marriage can become tenuous and dark while parents struggle with children who seem to need a little extra help. His three loosely interwoven stories take place in an upper-middle-class apartment building in Tel Aviv where neighbors observe one another quietly, grappling with their own growing desperation.
Nevo, the successful writer of many novels, including Homesick and Neuland, is incredibly perceptive at creating characters who seem to live in two worlds – the one inside their head and the one they show to everyone else. This latest work was translated into English by Sondra Silverston.
The first story is a heartbreaking tale about Arnon, a retired officer who is afraid his marriage is failing and decides to pour his heart out in a letter to an old army buddy. He and his wife have been leaving their daughter Ofri, an extremely sensitive and perceptive child, with their neighbors across the hall for years. The elderly couple, Herman and Ruth, whose children are grown, seem to delight in taking care of her. But Arnon senses something is not right with Herman right from the get-go, but pushes these feelings aside, particularly in the chaotic first months after his wife gave birth.
As the years progress, Herman and Ruth become an essential support system for their busy lives. But Arnon doesn’t like the way Herman always asks his daughter for a kiss outright when he sees her, and how frequently he bounces her on his lap. When his daughter returns one night and tells him that “Herman is broken,” they decide to stop leaving Ofri with him. But one night, in an act of parental recklessness, Arnon leaves Ofri with Herman in order to get to a spinning class, knowing his wife will be home 20 minutes later. Herman takes the child for a walk, and then gets lost, and when Arnon finds them, he is convinced something terrible has happened to his daughter and can’t forgive himself for his thoughtlessness.
His daughter’s behavior changes a few weeks later. She stops going to gymnastics and her violin classes. Her teachers claim she is very quiet at school. She starts wetting her bed. They go to a psychologist who, after speaking with the child, feels nothing untoward has happened. His wife feels he is overreacting and always indirectly criticizing her and the way she interacts with their daughter. But Arnon can’t stop himself from thinking about it, particularly since he had always fancied himself Ofri’s protector. Nevo captures the self-hatred and despair and obsessive thoughts that have now become Arnon’s constant companions.
“Why did I think I deserved it? Because I left her with Herman, because I wanted a better spot in the spinning class. And that’s even though I knew very well that something was wrong with him.” He has become a desperate man, consumed by thoughts of revenge, and this is the moment the story veers off into dangerous and unexpected terrain.
The second story demonstrates that Nevo is incredibly adept at capturing a woman’s intimate voice in a way most male writers struggle with. Her name is Hani and she is a frustrated stay-at-home mom whose husband, Assaf, travels constantly. The story is written in letter form to Hani’s closest friend in America, whom she misses terribly. Hani is worried about her daughter, who, although in grade school, still speaks to her imaginary friend Andrea, and this confuses and frightens her younger brother, Nimrod. Hani’s mother suffered from mental illness, and she worries about her daughter’s ongoing make-believe world. When her husband does come home, there is an unbearable tension between them.
Hani believes her husband is an inattentive father, and this has poisoned the landscape of their marriage. She imagined at the beginning that he would be an astonishing parent. He was kind to her siblings, tender with young children, and coddled her when she was pregnant. But while in labor, she looked up to see him texting, and something inside her became irreparably broken. He rarely held their daughter Lyri, and went back to work quickly, and rarely called home. When her husband’s estranged brother shows up at their door looking for shelter from loan sharks he is in trouble with, she lets him in and finds herself inexplicably drawn to him.
She tells her friend she believes it has something to do with the way he both listens and questions her about her life: “There were so many more questions, so spot on that they hurt. And he didn’t take his eyes off me when I spoke. Didn’t look at the cellphone as Assaf does. Didn’t keep his head in the same position, making you feel he’s thinking about something else. It was so weird that with the whole mess closing in on him he could still take an interest in me.”
The final story tells of Devora, a recently retired district judge, who talks in her mind to her dead husband, Michael. Neither of them had found parenting easy. They had one son, Adar, whom Devora is still estranged from. And the story circles around the genesis and development of this estrangement.
Her husband would always tell her that Adar was a difficult child, but Devora feels guilt-ridden that she did not fight for a sustained relationship with her son, which was perhaps squelched by her husband’s anger and dogmatism. Nevo shows us how hard it is to forgive ourselves for what we have done to our children. As the narrative progresses, we learn more about their marriage and Devora’s many disappointments, but none are more glaring than the abyss that opened up with her son as he was entering manhood.
Marriage is hard. Parenting is harder. Trying to maintain a good marriage while bringing up children presents all kinds of emotional and psychological challenges. We bring to the marriage our own ingrained sense of what a parent is and how one should behave. This often clashes with our spouse’s conceptions. Finding common ground so children can thrive and a marriage can sustain the transition to mothering and fathering is an incredibly delicate dance that many couples flounder at.
Nevo demonstrates this in his wonderfully moving and sad stories, which embrace the realities of modern families.