Suzanne Kamata Recommends
The young Jewish and Arab women portrayed in Wandering Star are so convincing that it’s easy to forget that the book was written by a sixty-something-year-old French man. J.M.G. Le Clezio also understands that while in wartime it is most often the men who go off to fight and die, it is the women who bear the brunt of their battles.
Wandering Star begins with a young girl named Esther who lives with her family in St. Martin, a French town occupied by Italian soldiers during World War II. These men, from just over the border, are in control of the village, but the real enemy, the German Gestapo, has not arrived yet. Esther’s friend, Gasparini tells her, “if the Germans come here, they’ll kill all the Jews.” She hides her identity behind a French name, Helene, and has false papers, but she and the other Jews in the village live in fear. Knowing that her future is uncertain, Esther is especially appreciative of the world around her – the sun on her bare skin, the taste of a wheat kernel, the coolness of the water as she dives into the gorge. Meanwhile, she and her family dream of Israel, where they will be free and safe.
When the Germans finally do come, Esther’s father is killed. She and her mother flee to Italy and then to Israel, where they witness the raising of the Israeli flag for the first time. Of course, they encounter many complications on the way. On the road to Jerusalem, Esther crosses paths with 16-year-old Nejma, who has been driven from her home. The two young women experience a moment of empathy, though they are supposedly enemies. They exchange names then go their separate ways in search of home and safety.
Nejma winds up in Nour Chams Camp. Her parents are dead. Her mother died in childbirth and her father was killed in the bombing of Nahariyya. Nejma is a survivor, however, and she cobbles together a new family among the refugees. First, she adopts the strong, wise Houriya as her aunt. Later, they take in Roumiya, a pregnant woman, driven half-mad by grief over the death of her husband in battle. The refugees wait for the United Nations truck bearing food and medicine that never comes. The camp becomes infested with disease. Ultimately, Nejma must take flight again in order to save herself.
Although the lives of these young women are filled with suffering, this novel is infused with hope. As Aamma Houriya points out after delivering Roumiya’s child in a urine-scented ravine, “the most beautiful thing can appear in the most vile place, among the refuse.” Beautifully written and seamlessly translated by C. Dickson, Wandering Star is both a coming-of-age story and a powerful tale of survival. For readers hoping to better understand the world we live in, this book also helps shed light on current events in the Middle East.
American Suzanne Kamata lives in Tokushima, Prefecture, Japan. She’s the editor of the anthology The Broken Bridge: Fiction from Expatriates in Literary Japan and the Fiction Co-Editor of literarymama.com.