Book review: Bringing it all back home

The characters in this novel are human enough to keep you turning the pages, wanting to see what happens to them.

Running Home by Brenda Shaw (photo credit: Courtesy)
Running Home by Brenda Shaw
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I have a confession to make that some of my book-loving friends consider shameful. When I start to read a book and find after the first few pages that I don’t really care what happens to the characters, I read the end, and only then do I decide if it’s worth my time to read the middle and complete the whole book.
With Brenda Shaw’s debut novel, I read from the beginning to the end in one mammoth reading session with no skipping.
The cover describes Running Home as a Coming-of-Age novel, but it defies being pigeonholed as such, touching on complicated family relationships and even contemporary Israeli politics.
Shaw is a retired psychiatrist who grew up in London and came to Israel in 1987. This first novel showcases her extensive experience of both worlds: the world of middle-class Jewish London, and the grittier realism of life in Israel, both of living in the close and sometimes stifling atmosphere of a long-established kibbutz with its old entrenched members, and also among the trendy and bohemian young adults of Tel Aviv, with their drive to be progressive and liberal and their determination to escape from the norms, prejudices and older values of their parents’ generation.
The characters in this novel are human enough to keep you turning the pages, wanting to see what happens to them. I would wager that readers will recognize in all the characters elements of themselves, of family members, or of friends and acquaintances.
Shaw assured me that none of the protagonists were based on a single person, but rather are composite sketches of people whom she encountered in both her professional and personal life. But it was so easy to become involved in the lives, lies and dilemmas of the characters in the book that I found myself a few times longing to pick up the phone and offer some unsolicited advice.
People always have a public persona and a more complex and sometimes muddled persona that they often keep hidden, even from themselves. And here Shaw’s professional training manifests itself in her skillful writing. We may not always like her characters, or agree with the decisions they take, but we do understand them and what it is that drives them to think and behave the way they do. In fact, if I have a criticism it is that I would dearly have liked to know more about some of the supporting cast of characters who almost deserve a book of their own.
The principal protagonist – or to describe her in the old fashioned way as the heroine of the story – has to learn how to negotiate her way through the minefield of sometimes competing family loyalties; and in her encounters in Israel she is again forced to open her mind to differing points of view and conflicting opinions.
Spending her formative years in the world of a prosperous and seemingly ideal world of Jewish London, the principal character would seem to have everything that a good Jewish girl could desire. And indeed there are such girls content with their lot who would never consider leaving the cozy and seemingly safe haven of prosperity and stability.
I do not want to spoil the book by revealing the reasons that our heroine journeys to Israel, so if you want to know what drives a young girl to go against family wishes and set off on a journey, albeit with trepidation, that may or may not bring her to her “home,” you are going to have to read it yourself.
Running Home may be the title, but it makes one wonder: where exactly is home? The popular saying is, “Home is where the heart is.”
But many of us have experienced the feeling of a heart split in two, divided between family loyalties and familiarity, and the longing for new places, new experiences and new emotional attachments.
Dorothy may have been able to return to home and normality by clicking her heels together while wearing the magical ruby shoes and repeating the mantra “There’s no place like home;” but this book made me wonder if Dorothy, on her return, might have found herself still longing for the wonderful world over the rainbow.
I look forward to the pleasure of reading more books by the talented Brenda Shaw.