What is our responsibility to strangers? Who do we help, love, and decide to make a part of our family and community? These are some of the questions explored in Alison Pick’s engrossing third novel. Though the story takes place nearly a century ago, the dream of a safe haven possesses an uncanny timeliness for us today.
Pick’s story opens in 1921, when a group of Jewish pioneers sets out to reclaim their ancient homeland and forge a new way of life. Most of the settlers are from Eastern Europe, fleeing violence and anti-Semitism. They hope to found a kibbutz – the Hebrew word for a communal settlement – in what will become Israel. Their path is rife with hardship, but lofty ideals spur them forward: to build a society dedicated to joint ownership of land, as well as equality in production, consumption, and education. A chosen home in the chosen land for the chosen people.
Yet, the Jewish settlers find that the soil they plan to claim is already inhabited by an Arab village. The story addresses the conflicts between the dreams and responsibilities of the individual versus those of the community, the divide between idealism and power. Pick deftly plumbs the cruel irony of the Jewish settlers, forced from their own homes, failing to recognize the rights and roots of their Palestinian neighbours.
Strangers with the Same Dream is narrated by a ghost – whose identity is a mystery at the outset – meant to function like a Greek chorus of one. She warns us that her whole story begins with a lie, and asks, “What does a ghost want?” The answer: “Redemption. To tell her story. And you are the ones I have chosen to tell. You are my own chosen people.”
Though this device draws readers in with the promise of lies, secrets, and mysteries to unravel, the spirit’s narration is problematic, even superfluous. First of all, she is the ghost of one of the pioneers, so to have her function both as a living, breathing character and as a spirit talking about herself and the others in the third person feels awkward and forced. It is as if the author is perched on the reader’s shoulder foreshadowing and interpreting the action and themes of her story.
One forgets about the ghost, only to have her pop up unbidden: “Above them I drifted. Had you forgotten I was here?” Though the question speaks to authorial intention, the ghost’s interjections often puncture the magic of immersion in the tale. For example, as the pioneers joyously dance the Hora, the ghost hovers: “I look down at Ida. I wish I could warn her. What she was living was the happiest moment. The moment before things went wrong.” Oddly, the novel offers little access to this narrator’s inner life, either as a living woman or a spirit.
Readers enter the minds and hearts of a handful of characters, the women generally being more richly drawn than the men. The novel is divided into three parts, and in a Rashomon-like approach, the same crucial events are seen from a trio of perspectives, with the ghost narrator hovering above them all. The first part belongs to Ida, a plain, bespectacled young woman who lost her father in a brutal attack during a Russian pogrom. The middle section centres on David, the group leader, known for fulsome speeches, lusty urges, and angry outbursts.
The most powerful section in the book belongs to Hannah, David’s soulful and passionate wife, caught between her own desires and her roles as wife and mother. Hannah is the most layered and affecting character, while David never quite springs to three-dimensional life. Much of his dialogue is composed of utopian slogans masking as speech: “It is up to us to make the dream of Zionist Socialism a reality. We have been summoned to create a new world based on justice, equality, and action.” Though this language may be intentional, the reader tunes out because of the tired rhetoric.
The gritty rhythms of the settlers’ lives are evoked in visceral detail: the back-breaking labour of clearing the land, draining swamps, sewing work clothes, cooking eggplant on a propane stove, boiling cauldrons of water to do laundry, and setting up a rudimentary infirmary. Readers witness the settlers’ afflictions, such as the fevers of malaria, the angry rashes of ringworm, and the excruciating cramps of dysentery.
But the greatest strength of this novel is its description of the landscape, conveyed in supple prose and startlingly beautiful images. The hot sun is “broken over the mountain’s crust and the sky above it an impossible ravaged blue”; the air “smelled of baked mud and sweat and a dense kind of emptiness”; and the “promise of night was like silk, or cool water.”
Despite an unwelcome ghost, Strangers with the Same Dream is a captivating read about making the desert bloom, a story that will haunt readers with its ordinary mortal resonance.