In a recent episode of “Modern Family,” a sleep-deprived Mitchell lets slip a careless comment that leads his adopted daughter Lily to believe her mom is a princess. As one would expect from a half-hour comedy, the situation is played for laughs. But the joke seemed to fall a little flat. This is perhaps because parentage is not something people like to see taken lightly. Even in “Modern Family,” the idea of a four-year-old mistakenly believing her long-lost mom is a princess comes across as more sad than funny.
A similarly upsetting situation occurs in “Kin,” a new novel written by Israeli author Dror Burstein and translated by Dalya Bilu. The story is grounded in several upsetting hypotheticals. What if a child and his adopted parent don’t fit? What if the child’s birth parents still question their decision decades later? In dissecting these prospects, Burstein presents a harrowing portrait of five people who are simultaneously islands unto themselves and inextricably bound. “Kin” is not a fun book to read, and falters when it attempts to take on issues that transcend its tiny cast of characters. But in prose that is gut-wrenching for its simplicity, the brilliantly realized characters grab hold of your heart and don’t let go.
“Kin” is a character-driven novel in which remarkably little actually happens. Burstein establishes the situation early on: In 1970, Yoel and Leah Zisu adopted an infant named Emile. Thirty-seven years later, Yoel is dying of cancer and tracks down Emile’s birth parents to ask if they will renew their relationship with their son. Interestingly, Burstein does not expand on this disturbing premise. It serves little purpose other than to ground the many chapters of self-reflection that ensue. The text proceeds to oscillate freely and frequently between the past, the present, and an apocalyptic future. The general arc of events is simple enough to prevent this atypical structure from creating confusion. The effect of this writing is that Burstein focuses the reader’s attention on the tiny cast of characters whose interior struggles form the heart of “Kin.”
Burstein is clearly most comfortable firmly ensconced inside his characters’ heads. It is when Yoel, Emile, and all the rest run up against the outside world that the unaffected rawness which lends “Kin” much of its appeal falls off. Passages that grapple with issues more universal in nature come off as heavy-handed and undermine the complexity of Burstein’s characters. This problem is exemplified in a sequence of chapters in “Kin” that discusses Emile’s brief conscription in the Israeli army. Burstein’s description of Emile’s reaction to having his head buzzed, which attempts to make a general statement about the impact of the army on one’s humanity, falls flat. “Emile felt how his shorn hair was only the first step on the way to a deeper cut that the army was going to make in his soul,” Burstein writes, “how the scissors would enter into his mind and soul and cut and cut.” This is an apt metaphor, but almost a little too on-the-nose. What’s more, it does a disservice to the unique personage Burstein has created. Emile might think this, but then again, so might anyone else. Burstein’s attempts to philosophize about the state of Israeli literature and foreign policy are similarly disappointing.
Burstein also undermines the poignancy of his novel through experimentation with unusual literary techniques. A moving chapter that vividly depicts the numbing effect of grief is thrown off by Burstein’s sudden insertion of himself into the text: “And one of the children, whose name was Dror, and who wasn’t even in the same class, took out a new tennis ball and gave it to Emile. It was me.” One gets the sense Burstein is trying to accomplish something important here, but just what that something is does not come across. It is perhaps a comment on how people are all bound up in each other’s stories, yet this intrusion may make the reader feel confused and toyed with. If you’re going to plop yourself down in the middle of your novel unannounced, you’d better make your reasons for doing so abundantly clear and effective, “Breakfast of Champions”-style.
But these are minor complaints. Burstein’s minimalist, unornamented prose overall lends itself well to an examination of his character’s psyches. By limiting the content of descriptive passages to what is strictly necessary and utilizing adjectives with the same eye toward caution one might adopt when cooking with chili powder, Burstein enables his writing to portray the most realistic emotions possible. The pangs of guilt, regret, yearning, and pain so keenly felt by Burstein’s characters are all the more poignant and impactful for their bare-bones presentation. Towards the novel’s conclusion, Yoel recalls a young Emile shrieking at him, “I want you to give me back, I want to go back, take another child, take the sick one instead of me.” There is not one dressy word to cushion the blow; its brutal clarity is palpable.
This economy of style is also in keeping with the cognitive realism Burstein’s writing aspires to. Descriptive passages are frequently punctuated by streams of consciousness that are appropriately devoid of poetic frills. The reader’s ability to empathize with Burstein’s characters depends on these passages. Disjointed, frequently ambiguous, nonlinear, and thoroughly human, they invite the reader to look upon these men and women as more substantial than words on a page.
The most vividly drawn among these characters is undoubtedly Yoel. In keeping with the lack of verbosity that characterizes “Kin,” Burstein never gives a physical description of Yoel or an account of his background. Yet he is so well developed that these gaps are of little consequence. The memories that haunt Yoel and the feelings that torment his conscious are conveyed bit by bit through the chapters he narrates. Most affecting are his reflections on his relationship with Emile. On the surface, their relationship does not appear especially fraught: it is clear that father and son love and care for one another. Yet there is undeniably something lacking, an unidentifiable absence that is all the more upsetting for its amorphousness. And Yoel doesn’t know what is missing anymore than we do.
“Kin” is not a perfect novel, nor does its heavy subject matter lend itself to easy enjoyment. It is, however, supremely moving, and boasts characters more believably human than the vast majority of those jammed between bindings. These characters, in conjunction with Burstein’s stark prose, enable “Kin” to pull off the rare feat of communicating dark and often unapproachable ideas effectively.