Pre-pub buzz had Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, the intriguingly if somewhat cumbersomely titled The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, as a The Things They Carried–Mean Girls hybrid. If you are finding it just a little difficult to picture a Venn diagram where a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War intersects with a Tina-Fey-penned movie about the travails of high school girls, consider this: both war and high school are marked by a strange blend of ennui and nearly unbearable stress, of existential dread and petty banality. (But, yes, it’s also true that only one of these makes you ponder the cruel betrayals of fame and fortune vis-à-vis a once fresh-faced, plucky, promising Lindsay Lohan.)
High school may be war, but, ultimately, if one must cast The People of Forever in pop culture terms, the book is mostly reminiscent of the Lena Dunham-created HBO show Girls. With its episodic structure, its unfolding in seemingly standalone stories actually bound together by insistent echoes, and its cast of recently-graduated young women — three, in the case of Boianjiu’s novel, to Dunham’s show’s four — pretending to a maturity, a certainty, they neither possess nor successfully imitate, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes as its subject rites of passage, looks at transient but fraught moments in a transitional time. And, like Dunham’s fictional(ized) stand-in Hannah Horvath, Boianjiu may well be the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation.
Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, though the book has little to do with the business of war. There are, to be sure, eruptions of violence — a male soldier is very nearly decapitated, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Israel’s subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon are integrated into the plot, and the novel’s third section explores the peacetime aftershocks of armed conflict, for “when the boy soldiers returned from the war they tortured the girl soldiers who waited for them” — but for the most part, the book may well be set in the Brooklyn of Girls. Yael, Avishag, and Lea, the three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin. I don’t mean to make light of the very grave, very deadly geopolitical concerns that are necessarily the background of a novel with its gaze firmly fixed on life in Israel, on life in the Israeli army. But these concerns are mostly background in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which reads, above all, as a coming-of-age story.
We meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea when they are still in school, a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village on the Lebanese border. (Boianjiu herself grew up in such a town.) Like any students on the verge of graduation, the girls are tempted to ignore the lecture, to pass notes and fantasize about parties and crushes, to speculate about whose house might be without parental supervision long enough to host those parties and entertain those crushes. The lecture at hand is about the “PLO, SAM, IAF, RPG children,” Syrian submarines and Palestinian children trying to shoot RPG rockets at Israeli soldiers and burning each other instead, but, as a sub-chapter heading tells us, “History Is Almost Over.” These young women, like young women everywhere, believe that the past stops with their present, that their futures will be different and special and lovely. And this is of course terrifying.
Army notices are sent out. The girls prepare for service. Yael becomes a weapons instructor, responsible for training other soldiers in the art of marksmanship. (An editorial by Boianjiu in last Sunday’s New York Times revealed that this was her own position during her two years of IDF service. I mention this fact mostly by way of noting that Yael, who bears the heaviest load of the narration, seems closest to the author herself, serving as ego in the triangulated configuration of herself and the imperious Lea and the depressive, impulsive Avishag.) Lea checks documents at a West Bank checkpoint and desperately tries to enter into the history and experiences of the men trying to cross. Avishag serves as a guard overlooking the border. All three pretend at being grownups, at being tough, and all three remain vulnerable, become more vulnerable. They flash back to their childhoods, their conventionally troubled families, to which all three return, however briefly, after the completion of their service. The girls’ reunion becomes a momentarily idyllic return to the safety of childhood configurations, a respite not from war — which is after all a kind of existential truth in their lives — but from the need to pose as confident, as capable. Only about twenty when they leave the army, the girls are poised on the threshold of a world that does not seem to them quite real, and they postpone their entrance by retreating into old patterns, old games.
The author herself is still very young, only twenty-five. She is also the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, selected for that honor by the novelist Nicole Krauss. Boianjiu has something of Krauss’s sensibility, her interest in intersecting lives, the seams where unexpected connections are exposed. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Boianjiu showcases a lovely sort of simplicity, allowing the girls’ voices to ring true, to ring young and innocent and sad. In this, she strikes no false notes: Yael and Lea and Avishag are just different enough from each other to be interesting, just similar enough to be believable friends. The book falls apart near the end, asked to bear a burden it has not convincingly built to. It becomes, too suddenly, with too little warning, about war, and it loses sight of the characters who helped us make sense of all that has come before. But, for those moments when Yael and Lea and Avishag and their splendid, troubled, mundane lives are slowly developing in front of us, a strip of photo-booth pictures coming into a precision and a clarity, we fully believe in their existence and their sense of that existence.