In her debut novel, Gila Green imagines a near future in which Israel has been divided into two separate nation-states by a costly civil war. Eve Vee, the protagonist with an imaginative and wandering mind, attends a secular university in the otherwise Jewish Orthodox dominated state of Shalem, the newly created and nationally unrecognized state. As the story begins she is a young bride-to-be, woozy with love for her fiancé, Manny. But Manny has been cheating on her—not in the traditional, carnal way, but by secretly studying to become a rabbi and discovering a new, strictly religious lifestyle. Eve, who is far from a devout Jew, refuses to change her own lifestyle to meet Manny’s new needs, and the engagement comes to an abrupt end. But when Eve is visited and persuaded by a “pre-soul”, a ghost-like embodiment of her unborn son, she gives her relationship with Manny a second chance.
One of the novel’s primary concerns is the place of religion in the modern world. Manny embraces a kosher diet and honoring the Sabbath, among other Jewish laws, but Eve finds these practices archaic and inconvenient. She struggles to cook a kosher meal and succeeds only with the help of a virtual guide (one of the few times in the novel that advanced technology and religion find harmony). She refuses to pity her husband when he injures himself (on more than one occasion) fumbling in the dark because he will not use electricity on the weekends. Green reveals both conflict and comedy in the discord between the nonstop reality of contemporary living and cautions of devout behavior.
In Green’s version of the future, human dependence on technology has not waned in the least, perhaps even grown stronger, and with little apparent benefit. Robots fill the roles maids and guard dogs, but often malfunction and require constant maintenance. The language used to describe the technology is often clunky and dated. Eve’s music player is called an “MP300,” which sounds like a name straight from the early nineties. When she wants to video chat with her sister, she says, “Put on-screen on.” Perhaps Green is being deliberately awkward here in order to show the unnatural side of technology. If so, that is somewhat dishonest, because people are very good at developing simple and clear language for new technology. Consider the vast acceptance of Google as a verb, or the phrase “friend me.” This flaw aside, Green does a good job of portraying our reliance on machines. The best example is the police officer who can’t stay on track without the help of his mind-reading cell phone named Kesh:
“ ‘You are not concentrating on the matter at hand,’ beeps Kesh.
Sorry. What was I doing here?
‘You were planning to retrace the exact steps of the boy again and review the recent photos of the search party.’
Near the halfway point, the story jumps ahead more than a decade. Eve changes from a single young woman to a middle-aged wife with three kids, yet, strangely, her voice and perspective remain virtually unchanged. Twenty-something graduate student Eve is remarkably similar to thirty-something full-time mom Eve. The focus of the narrative, on the other hand, shifts drastically. When they face a serious familial tragedy, Eve and Manny ignore the difficulties of their relationship in order to work through it together. The secular/religious conflict takes a backseat and the story devolves into a sort of crime drama with a soap opera feel. Far too much description and stage direction populates this half of the book.
King of the Class in an ambitious novel and a pleasurable read, but perhaps suffers from addressing too many social/political issues in fewer than 250 pages, including the cost of war, parenting practices in the twenty-first century, and the perils of being a childhood celebrity. This results in an occasionally shallow, overdramatic feeling for an otherwise fascinating novel.
Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, NY. His reviews have appeared in Necessary Fiction Reviews, Prick of the Spindle, and Blood Lotus Journal. His online home is tmdwrites.tumblr.com.