A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
By Valerie Zenatti
Rating: PG; 4 ½ stars
Summary: Tal lives in Jerusalem. When her brother is sent by the Israeli army to Gaza, she sends him with a request: to put a message in a bottle in the Gaza Sea. She desperately wants to communicate with a Palestinian girl like her, to see if Israelis and Palestinians really are all that different. However, when she receives the first email from her Palestinian pen-pal, she finds that they are not a girl her age, but a boy, Naim. Thus begins a most interesting friendship. Though at first their emails are fraught with cultural misunderstandings (mostly on the part of the sometimes overoptimistic Tal), they soon become close friends. Their friendship is put to the test when Tal's love of film making causes her to witness something terrible.
Opinions: This book was a very quick read, but the story lingers with you afterward, making it seem longer than it actually is. Naim and Tal are ordinary teenagers with ordinary lives, they just happen to live in an area of conflict. Had they lives elsewhere, where distance was the only thing that separated them, I don't think there would have been a story. The stumblings and fumblings of Tal and Naim's initial contact are very realistic; they are both quick to be defensive, despite wanting to prove that Israelis and Palestinians can get along. I read this pretty much in one afternoon, and was crying by the end of it. It is a very powerful story that stays with you long after it ends.
Aside from the actual story, I loved the writing. I hate to remark on it, since this is a translation, but I really thought the writing was wonderful. It was simple and eloquent, and it really spoke to me.
I think that this is a fantastic read for American teenagers; so often we hear about conflict in the Middle East, but we don't often get this sort of glimpse into the lives of people just like us. I will emphasize again: Tal and Naim are ordinary people. They stress over tests; they have little crushes. Yet in addition to worrying about school, money, or family, they also have to worry about bombs.
I gave this book a PG because there really isn't that much violence or language or sexual content, but being a YA book, it is of course not appropriate for all audiences. The 4 ½ stars is because this really is a wonderful book. It is missing that final wow factor that would push it up into the 5 star range, but it really is great. I feel like perhaps if I read it in the original French (if I had that much skill in French), that alone might push it into the 5 star range. I tend to be a bit distrustful of translations, just because a lot can be lost between the limitations of either language. If you are fluent in French, I encourage you to look for this in the original language. Still, this is definitely a fantastic book. I think that it goes really well with In the Name of God, by Paula Jolin, which made my Top Ten list for 2009. They both showcase conflict in the Middle East from a less-than-typical angle.