In an interview with author Eshkol Nevo, he notes that as he was writing Three Floors Up (published in Hebrew as Shalosh Komot in 2015 and translated by Sondra Silverstein), a book he wrote in "five explosive months", he was not in love with his characters, that they were flawed and as he wrote he found himself resenting them. Resenting them, yet also "understanding them deeply." I found Nevo's earlier novel, Homesick, utterly engaging, yet I struggled with his latest book. Stylistically it reads quite smoothly, but I found it hard to engage with his characters and briefly thought of setting the book aside. Life is messy and their lives are at times very messy, and I could not quite connect with them.
Time and again, however, I have learned that a little perseverance with a 'difficult' text (or difficult characters) will in the end offer its own rewards. Although I never quite warmed up to the people living in this apartment building in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, I was impressed by the way the story was created and told and the interconnectedness of lives so independent of each other yet also so aware--like planets orbiting each other and sometimes crossing paths and shedding light and then bouncing off back into their own worlds none the wiser.
The novel is made up of three stories, literally and figuratively--each one set on a different floor of the apartment complex. Each story is told in a confessional style, which I found intriguing. Each character narrating his or her story to someone we never meet. There is no judgement and no conversation between the 'confessor' and the 'listener' (maybe the reader is more than just a reader/observer but literally the listener and maybe even 'judge'?), so the reader never hears a response, but must connect the dots from listening to these inner monologues and hints that other characters on other floors might drop in their story.
It wasn't until the third story where things began to fall into place and the structure of the story came into focus and gave me that little moment of enlightenment and appreciation. The last narrator brings Freud into her internal conversation and mentions the id and the ego and superego "containing all our impulses and urges". Freud and his theories dividing the psyche into three floors much like this apartment complex mirror each other nicely. No worries, as Freud only offers a hint or nudge, and then the action moves on. With each new story and as the reader moves up each floor, things become more clear and in the end there is a satisfying resolution. So, while the narratives are only loosely connected, each new one moves things along creating a whole picture. There is something nicely satisfying in the symmetrical telling of the story and the progress towards a tidy ending that gave me a better appreciation of the struggles of the characters.
No two lives are ever the same and each floor, each story was different and compelling. On the first floor lives Arnon, a retired officer who served in the First Intifada, and his family. He is obsessed with the idea that one of his neighbors has abused one of his daughters. The obsession begins to take over his life and affect his relationships with those around him. "Talking about this stuff is unpleasant" he tells his friend, a writer, so he will just spill it out as long as it doesn't end up in a book. There is no happy ending for Arnon, and his life and relationships are in left in a muddle. He wants his friend to give him a happy ending, to sort out his life and the reader is left wondering what will happen to Arnon and his family.
Up a flight of stairs and we meet Hani whose husband travels frequently abroad leaving her alone with their young family. You can feel the tension in Hani's narration. She has no one to talk to. While her husband's world is broad, Hani's seems to become increasingly narrow being always at home with no one to talk to. Her story is told through installments in a letter she is writing to a friend who is living in the US. It feels real, and maybe for Hani it is, but as her story is revealed the reader questions if what she is telling her about her life is actually happening. There are glimpses of Hani's life in the third story through vague interactions, but it's never quite resolved if what she thought happened really did.
Finally it is Devora, a recently widowed retired judge, who will bring the story full circle. She had a strong relationship with her husband who was also a court judge, but one that perhaps needed all her effort and energy and which suffered in their disagreements over their only son. One day she comes across an old answering machine from earlier in their life together that has his voice on the outgoing message. A link to him and their happy life, she begins talking into the machine, as if to him. Through her short messages the reader finds that their life was perhaps not so happy and comes to understand why her son severed all ties with his parents. She finds peace and resolution through political activism, through the rallies and protests happening outside her windows.
For me, this is a novel that I have come to appreciate more after finishing and allowing time to let it percolate. I love Nevo's storytelling style, even if some of the reading was a bit uneven. It's very cleverly presented and quite rich in retrospect. He is a writer I will definitely be revisiting.