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Posted on 7 May 2020 in Fiction |

EMUNA ELON House on Endless Waters. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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A successful Israeli writer unexpectedly finds himself dealing with his family’s wartime past in Emuna Elon’s new novel.

The image flickered on the wall for just a heartbeat, but even in that fleeting second, Yoel managed to discern that the woman in the picture was his mother; his mother in her early years, his mother in the days that preceded the compass of his memory, but his mother.

 He stopped breathing.

Yoel Blum is an internationally famous Israeli writer. He is visiting Amsterdam for the first time, breaking a promise his mother had demanded of him that he never set foot there. But his mother is dead, his Dutch publisher has insisted that they should meet, and his wife, Bat-Ami, has talked him into going.

Yoel knows that he was born in Amsterdam, but his mother, Sonia, refused to talk about it. Amsterdam was where the war had robbed her of his ‘father, her parents, her siblings and the life she might have had’. If he asked about his past, his mother was dismissive: ‘[W]hatever was, was. Those waters have already flowed onward.’ She would never elaborate. She also kept her family from others who might have been more forthcoming. ‘Anyone who immigrated to Israel as an infant is considered a native-born Israeli,’ she told him. And this is how Yoel regards himself.

Now, watching a loop of video that Bat-Ami has discovered in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, he sees his father holding the hand of a small girl who is recognisably his older sister Nettie, and a baby in his mother’s arms who is clearly not himself. He watches the loop again and again and is sure of this: ‘It isn’t me. Look at the shape of his head, the eyes, the hair. It isn’t me.’

 Later, sitting by a canal, where the watersglowed dark and silent and all remembering’, Yoel looks for even …

 … a fleeting shadow or echo left in it by his lost brother, who by his calculations done mainly on Nettie’s estimated age in the museum film, was somewhat younger than him. His little brother.

So begins Yoel’s search for more information, and this becomes the seed of his next book. Yoel decides that he must leave his family with Bat-Ami in Israel and return to Amsterdam alone to research it.

On his second visit to Amsterdam, Yoel spends hours at the Jewish History Museum trying to learn as much as he can about the sort of world in which his family once lived. And he learns much about the way the Dutch reacted to the German occupation of the city. One old woman, in a filmed interview, says that people knew what was happening in Germany, had heard about arrests and the persecution of Jews, and had guessed that Holland would be invaded, but:

We didn’t believe it. We didn’t believe it. We didn’t believe such things could happen in Holland.

 But, of course, they did, and other exhibits and films in the museum show just what did happen. Yoel leaves the museum feeling something of the fear that Jewish people felt as their freedom became restricted and access to schooling, employment and transport (even bicycles) was denied. Businesses were closed, property and homes seized, arrests and transportation to unknown destinations became more frequent, and mothers secretly arranged for their children to be sent to live with non-Jewish families for safety, and never told where they were sent. For Yoel, ordinary things suddenly become frightening, he feels watched. Even groups of chattering tourists seem unable to afford him protection, yet he recognises his paranoia and refuses to believe that this ‘frightened Yid’ is himself.

His sister Nettie and an elderly Israeli woman, who knew his mother when the family lived in Amsterdam, have provided Yoel with some information about their lives there. Nettie can tell him very little, but he finds the art shop their upstairs neighbour, Martin, had once kept and, adjacent to it, the street where they had lived. ‘This is where the story unfolds,’ he tells himself, and seeing a run-down hotel adjoining what was once Martin’s shop, he impulsively takes a cheap room there that has a balcony overlooking the backs of the houses. The Dutch habit of leaving windows uncurtained allows him glimpses into the lives of those living in the nearest houses, and he becomes fascinated by a young woman and her baby and small daughter who live in one of them. He imagines that this could have been his mother in their earlier life, and so begins his novel:

Sonia goes into the house without treading on the red autumn leaves piled in the doorway… She steers Nettie into the hallway, comes inside with the stroller, closes the door, and descends the steep staircase with both hands gripping the metal handle of the heavy stroller as it bounces in front of her, step after step. Nettie follows her down, counting the steps in English as her father had taught her only yesterday.

Past and present merge as passages from Yoel’s notebooks imagine Sonia’s life and are interwoven with accounts of Yoel’s daily activities and the findings of his research. So, Yoel’s disorientation as he becomes more and more imaginatively immersed in Sonia’s wartime world, takes place in present-day Amsterdam – in his seedy hotel room, in a square where three men wearing ‘only jeans and faded T-shirts’ perform handstands for the passers-by, in a Starbuck’s café, and among the groups of tourists and sightseers who throng Amsterdam, for whom the horrors of the recent past are just ‘history’. The people Yoel sees queuing to go into the Rijksmuseum do not see, as he does, the ghosts of a Jewish couple, his parents, who would flee there when a police raid was imminent and walk through the exhibits just as if they were two ordinary art lovers and hoping no-one would ask for their papers’; they do not feel, as Yoel does, the legacy of fear, pain, loss, stoicism and, sometimes, guilt, that wartime events have left.

Yoel’s disorientation, and his search for the identity of the baby he sees in his mother’s arms in the museum’s video, leave him uncertain of his own identity. The result of all his research resolves this, but his story is harrowing. It reflects the wartime experiences of many other Jewish children, and it leaves him with more questions, some of which may never be answered.

Emuna Elon is an internationally established Jewish writer and scholar, and House on Endless Waters is beautifully written, evocative, and often very moving. It is part detective story and part wartime Jewish history, but mostly it is about Yoel’s imaginative immersion in his mother’s early life, his attempts to capture this in his book, and his personal search for his own identity.

House on Endless Waters has been smoothly translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yechiel.

Emuna Elon House on Endless Waters Allen & Unwin 2020 PB 320pp $29.99 

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (// are archived by the British Library.

You can buy House on Endless Waters from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.