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~House or Home?~
It's an old line that the USA and UK are two nations divided by a single language. This is nicely illustrated with Rina Frank's book. The US version has a different title which makes no sense at all. If you buy the American version then every HOUSE needs a balcony rather than every home. This is silly since the entire book is set around apartment life. If you have a house then quite honestly, you don't need a balcony. Only the compressed and space-poor single-room dwelling immigrant family has the physical need for balcony life - if you can afford a whole house, then you're on a different level from Rina Frank's characters.
~The Immigrant Dream or Nightmare?~
In 'Every Home Needs a Balcony' Rina Frank tells two parallel but interconnected tales. The first is about a Romanian Jewish family arriving in the newly formed state of Israel and building a life for themselves in a multiple occupancy flat in Haifa. This is told in the first person from the point of view of Rina, the younger daughter. The second thread that runs through the book is told in the third person and is about the romance and marriage of a young woman who finds her 'perfect' man, marries him, has a baby who is seriously ill and then watches everything fall apart. As readers, we assume that the young girl and the young mother are the same woman although it's not explicitly stated and the book jumps back and forth in time between the two stories. It's not hard to keep the two stories separate though - in fact to some degree it's disappointing that neither appears to really influence the other. You could cut them apart and make two short books and probably neither would suffer separation from its Siamese twin.
Young Rina's family left Romania and arrived in Israel just a little bit too late. By the time they turned up the land and property grab in which Jewish incomers took the best houses left by departing Arabs left little for the later arrivers to fight over. The family find themselves living in a windowless kitchenette in a relative's flat, eventually graduating to one large room that the four of them share which represents a wonderful improvement because it has a balcony. Frank explains that the balcony is the place where everything happens - where they watch the neighbours and the neighbours watch them, where everyone can see how worn and patched your laundry is and how often you wash your sheets. There are no secrets in this neighbourhood and the balcony is their television. We learn from Rina's sister how to hold your chin up and pass yourself off as 'better than you should be' - to leave the flat in a smelly district of Haifa always dressed in your best clothes in case your friends should see you and then you can pretend you're just passing through, to always behave as if you live in the finest part of town, even though your family are sharing a single room.
The land of opportunity proves to be a myth for some of the newcomers. In Romania Rina's father ran a cinema - in Haifa he can barely get a job and longs for the security of a permanent position. Her mother was an accountant before they emigrated but finds herself cleaning other people's houses and taking in sewing.
~Not everyone can be a winner in the new land. ~
Rina's parents are a mixed marriage - she an Ashkenazi Jew, he a Sephardic - and they don't love each other. In the authentic voice of a child Rina tells us that they had sex once and made her sister, the second time they made her. Which child that's just learned the very sketchy facts of life hasn't told themselves that their parents have 'done it' only to make children? She also recounts the violence of her surroundings where other families engage in a frenzy of beatings; the father beats the mother who beats the elder children who in turn beat the little ones. Everyone's just longing to get bigger and find someone smaller and younger to smack around.
As so often happens when history repeats itself, the older woman whom we assume to be Rina makes another mixed marriage - she an Israeli, he a Spaniard, but perhaps the more serious gap is that she's poor and he's from a wealthy family. Everyone in this book is trying to come to terms with not being entirely confident or comfortable in their skin. Even when she's living a comfortable life in Barcelona with no money worries, she still wants to go back to Israel where they'll have less money and a much harder life. Like her parents, you could argue that they didn't know when they were well off.
~Hope or Despair?~
Every Home Needs a Balcony is not an easy book to review because it's one in which relatively little actually happens but it happens (or doesn't happen) in a superficially gentle and rather fascinating way. There are few twists or turns and the tale progresses in a linear fashion. There are no surprises and it's much more about describing time and place, emotions and the minutiae of daily life and particularly its disappointments. Despite not being very 'plot-driven' it's still a compelling read although it would be unfair to not reveal that when I reached the end I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
We're told the book is 'partly autobiographical' - what a phrase! You can't help but wonder which bits aren't based on truth. Did Rina and 'the man' (as her husband is always referred to) really have child with serious health issues? Did she really beat the living daylights out of her love rival? Did she really go to Barcelona and did he really up sticks and move to Israel to be with her? I don't know and I don't think it matters but I would prefer to not have known that some (and presumably not all) was factual. And more worryingly, how can we as readers actually like the Rina of the book and by extension the author, when we read of her callous actions? There's little warmth or room for sympathy with this cold fish of a woman.
Despite the darkness of the plot, the sadness of the lives and the inexorable journey towards unhappiness, there is a lot of humour in the book. Every Home Needs a Balcony is Rina Frank's first novel and I'm sure she has a great future ahead of her but I can't help hoping that next time she sticks to pure fiction so I can like her and her characters without having to wonder where fact ends and fiction begins.
My copy was kindly supplied by the publishers and an earlier version of this review appears on curiousbookfans.co.uk