With the recent intensification of conflict in the Middle East, I hope many teen readers find their way to A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, because it is a powerful, thought-provoking glimpse of life in that region. The novel begins when Tal, an Israeli girl, decides to throw a bottle with a letter she has written about herself into the Gaza Sea, hoping to make contact with someone who lives on the other side. She chooses to send the message after a bomb rips through a local cafe killing a young woman who was to be married the very next day. Tal cannot contain the emotions she feels when she hears about the tragedy, and so she writes about what’s inside her head as a way of coping. Naim, a 20 year-old Palestinian who first identifies himself to Tal as “Gazaman,” finds the bottle and contacts Tal. From there, the two young people begin corresponding through email, sharing their experiences and opposing perspectives. As time passes they become friends, and through this unusual relationship they understand the issues behind the conflict in even more personal and complex ways.
One of the reasons I love to read as much as I do is that sometimes I find stories that offer insight into a culture or a moment in time or an experience that I could never know first hand. A Bottle in the Gaza Sea does this brilliantly. It grabs onto you, and forces you to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where violence was a part of day-to-day life, where fear would be so close to the surface all the time. Tal and Naim grapple with this throughout the novel, feeling rage and desperation and profound sadness at the loss they feel around them, in the streets, on the news. I thought that Zenatti conveyed Naim’s intense anger so well at the outset of the story. His voice is sarcastic and bitter and mad, and as you begin to understand what he has seen and what he lives with, you can understand where his feelings come from. Tal wants so badly to believe that there is good in the world and that it is possible to find a way towards a future where everyone can live in safety and peace.
This book has a lot of say about the power of language. Writing offers both of these characters freedom. Their letters become a place to express what they would otherwise be forced to keep inside. Their stories and their opinions bridge the distance that war and death has opened between their communities and cultures. Late in the novel, Tal and Naim write about how their countries cannot seem to agree on a common language. They have different words for things: terrorists / freedom fighters, Israel / Palestine, security / peace. Tal says, “I think if we could agree on words we could agree on everything.” I love that line. It makes you think about the deep roots of conflict and the steps that could be taken to start something new.
Sure to spark discussion, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea has won the 2009 Sydney Taylor Book Award for its authentic portrayal of the Jewish experience.