“For you, everything’s a story, eh? It’s just too bad that for me, it’s real life”
This slow-revealing, insightful Israeli novel was one that took me by surprise.
Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this bestselling and warmly acclaimed Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents, whose turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions reveal a society in the midst of an identity crisis.
The first thing that piqued my interest upon starting my reading of Three Floors Up was the author’s brilliant ability to make his characters shine in quiet moments. As well as having this disquieting nature at the very base of the introducing story that makes the narrator’s actions brim with tension, even when there’s nothing crucial happening on the surface.
“You can’t always pinpoint such things. Sometimes it’s just a feeling. The very slightest sense of menace in the air.”
Following interweaving threads between the three narratives, Three Floors Up is, at its core, about life and all its accompanying beauty, complexity, ease, and flaws.
I found the second floor is where I feel this book really flourishes, where Hani, known as “the widow,” is writing a letter of confession of sorts to her longtime friend, Netta. This story reverberated in its quiet resonance most strongly when her brother-in-law (Eviatar) shows up at her doorstep out of the blue.
Though, to give credit where credit is due, Hani starts of the story quite remarkably on her own terms. I still remember the utter thrill I felt at reading the passage below, of having Hani reminiscence to the one psychologist she clicked with years and years ago, whom she now decides to call, only to reach the son.
“I remained standing there with the phone in my hand even after we hung up, listening to the beeps that came after the call was disconnected. What a nerve she had, I thought, to die on me like that.”
I also appreciated the author’s efforts of never leaving a character without expanding on their thoughts or breathing some life into them. Speaking of which: Eviatar. He’s one of the more morally gray characters I’ve read about, which, when I really think of it, are essentially all of the characters in this book. But the author handled their flaws expertly, as this next passage best captures: “But I’m not going to talk about Eviatar yet. If I talk about Eviatar now, you’ll judge me harshly and I want you to understand the background first and then judge me (harshly, what else?).”
It’s all in the underlying sentences that aren’t said but are felt.
From telling captivating bedtime stories to handling the kids naturally in the mornings before school, it was nearly impossible not to get caught up in Eviatar’s charisma. Which is best cemented in this single paragraph:
“Before I opened the door to leave the house, he bent down to Lyri and said, “Remember what we agreed!” (They already have agreements?)
Lyri nodded. Hesitantly.
“If Mica says she doesn’t want to play with you at recess,” Eviatar persisted, “what will you tell her?”
“That’s your loss.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That I’m a terrific girl and anyone who plays with me can only profit from it.”
“And what does ‘profit from it’ mean?”
“That she’ll have fun.”
“Good. And you”—he turned to Nimrod—“give me a high five. Hard. Harder. The hardest. Now a hug. Tight. Tighter. The tightest.”
It was this, finally, that made the tears well up in my eyes. It’s also at this point that I was thinking, ‘This is a true man,’ but then I also remembered that he’s at the house because he’s being hunted down by loan sharks and needs to hide… So this is where it gets tricky in regards to his character because we feel all these conflicting emotions where we see him acting so kindly with the family, but then his business is unquestionably shady. Like, how do these two versions of Eviatar align?
So, without a doubt, Eshkol Nevo raised lots of important questions by introducing these characters. Also, if we’re already on the topic, I have to mention that the writing in here is sublime and unlike anything I’ve read before. I felt it in particular when I read this:
“Why are you helping me, Hani?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Because you’re desperate.”
Or maybe I said, “Because I’m the only one who will.”
Or maybe I said, “Because Assaf wouldn’t want me to help you.”
Or maybe I didn’t say anything.”
“(I’m not trying to be smart, Netta. I’m really not sure what I said. Or what I just wanted to say. What happened, or what I wanted to happen. Honestly.)”
The breaking of the fourth wall, combined with perceptiveness, subtle humor, and a sense of timing all made for a transcendent reading experience. Full of slow-revealing storylines that are so worth the wait and fleshing out the characters through tiny detailed moments in time are what really make the story for me. Plus, the biggest bonus for me: capturing the essence of Israeliness, which I always turn for in books. Bottom line: I highly recommend this read.
Many, many thanks to the Jewish Book Council’s Israel Bookshelf for providing me with a physical copy of Three Floors Up.
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