By the time I finished listening to The Hilltop, I felt I had spent a year getting to know the Jewish settlers of the tiny West Bank outpost of Ma’aleh Hermesh C, and that I had known the two grown brothers at the center of the story since their boyhood. Epic and intimate: that is the dual scope of Assaf Gavron’s portrait of modern Israel with all its contradictions and complications, its absurdity and anguish, its beauty and brutality.
Orphaned as very young children, brothers Roni Kupper and Gabi Nehushtan are now pushing 40. Having been semi-estranged for some years, they find themselves as the story opens both pitched up on the hilltop where the trailers of Ma’aleh Hermesh C crouch precariously. The two men took very different paths to get here, and the novel proceeds in alternating chapters to relate current events in and around the settlement, and to trace the history of the Kupper/Nehushtan brothers.
From some key incidents in their shared childhood on a kibbutz in Galilee to their separate paths through young adulthood from Israel to the United States and back again, Gavron spins out the circumstances that made Roni and Gabi who they are and led to their reunion on a West Bank hilltop. The flashback sections of the novel trace the roots of the brothers’ idiosyncrasies, charting their individual rise and fall, and bringing the listeners back around to each man’s present-day fumbling, scrambling rise from his own ashes.
The main story of life in Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the course of a pivotal year is no less compelling. Founded four years prior to the action of the novel by Othniel Assis, an entrepreneurial accountant-turned-farmer who had grown frustrated with the restrictions of life in the original settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh A, the outpost has developed in a vague, semi-illegal fashion made possible by the byzantine nature of Israeli bureaucracy. Officially, Ma’aleh Hermesh C does not exist (after all, it’s not on the map) — and yet, here it is, bustling with people, politics and plans for the future. The fact that the settlement abuts the ancient olive groves of Musa Ibrahim in the nearby Arab village of Kharmish leads to the central drama of the present-day narrative.
Narrator Robert Fass ably gives voice to an array of characters young and old, Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, Middle Eastern and American. His narration ranges from mellow to melodramatic, as needed in a story that encompasses everyday village life, simmering psychological turmoil, and sudden violence. Fass strikes just the right tone for the strong thread of humor that runs through the fabric of the tale, providing invaluable auditory clues to the ironies and absurdities inherent in so many of the situations.
Listen to The Hilltop if you want to travel without danger to modern Israel and spend some time in a version of the place that goes beyond the usual simplistic, binary portrayal of it in the news. In his telling of the tale of the small neighborhood of Ma’aleh Hermesh C, Assaf Gavron has also given readers the bigger picture of contemporary Israel and the West Bank, as well as a close-up portrait of two men adrift in the tides of history.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.