Michael Gonen, the title character, born in 1926. He is a third-year geology student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the beginning of the novel, in 1950. Ten years later, when the novel ends, he is a relatively promising academic with his doctoral thesis just completed. A decent, diligent, unimaginative young man for whose academic success his father and aunts have great hopes, Michael falls in love with Hannah Greenbaum almost on first sight. She describes him as angular bodied with a long, lean, and dark face, gray eyes, short hair, and strong hands. They marry after a brief courtship and begin life together in an old apartment in northwestern Jerusalem’s Mekor Baruch neighborhood. He proves to be a devoted father to Yair and a dutiful husband to Hannah, although he is not good at either communicating or fathoming feelings. By the end of the novel, his hair is beginning to gray, his chronic heartburn is worse, and his wife, Hannah, is expecting their second child.
Hannah Greenbaum Gonen
Hannah Greenbaum Gonen, the first-person narrator, born in 1930. She is the protagonist of this “journal,” which she is writing after ten years of marriage to Michael. Her father, Yosef, whom she loved more than anyone else in her life, died of cancer when she was thirteen years old. She falls in love with Michael while she is a first-year student of literature at Hebrew University, and they marry within months. Once she becomes pregnant, she abandons her studies. After a difficult pregnancy and a birth with complications that leaves her ill for a while, Hannah finds her life fraught with bouts of anxiety, depression, and dreams that impede her ability to cope with everyday events. She suffers from a chronic sore throat and a recurrent loss of voice. She often spends money “hysterically” on unneeded items. She finds their apartment and the city of her birth oppressive. The promises of a new apartment in a new suburb in 1961 and a new child to be born in 1960 do nothing to assuage her sense of the sameness of days and the irrevocable loss of her youthful power of loving.
Yair Zalman Gonen
Yair Zalman Gonen, Michael and Hannah’s son, born in March, 1951. From infancy, with his broad healthy face, high cheekbones, and gray eyes, he resembles Hannah’s brother Emanuel. A strong, silent, bright child with a good memory, Yair seems cold, violent, and sullenly insolent to Hannah. He often comes home from play showing marks of fisticuffs. Yair gets along well with Michael, who never administers corporal punishment to him. A teacher describes him as lacking sensitivity.
Yehezkel Gonen, Michael’s father. He dies in the summer of 1955 only days after Michael, Hannah, and Yair visit him for six days in Holon. From Poland and with four sisters in Israel, he had changed his surname from Ganz to Gonen. At the time of the novel, he is a retired municipal water department employee on a modest pension, a vegetarian, a member of the Labor Movement, and an active participant in the local branch of the Workers’ Party. A father who always had dreams of academic success for his only child, Michael, he never remarried after the death of his wife, Tova, which occurred when Michael was three years old. During the 1955 family visit, he gets along famously with his grandson, Yair.
Yoram Kamnitzer, the teenage son of the Gonens’ upstairs neighbors. He occasionally looks after Yair when Hannah and Michael go out. He shows Hannah his poems and seems smitten by...
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her. When he is seventeen and she twenty-seven, she unsuccessfully pressures him for a verbal declaration of his infatuation. When he publishes a love poem describing a love similar to that of Potiphar’s wife for the chaste Joseph, his scandalized Orthodox parents and school officials send him away to an Orthodox kibbutz high school. Eventually, the Kamnitzer family leaves for a new apartment in a Tel Aviv suburb. Yoram has given up poetry and is likely to become a Bible and Hebrew teacher after university studies, a probability that Hannah considers a final defeat for herself.
Emanuel Greenbaum, Hannah’s brother, a robust man with unruly hair. He lives with his wife, Rina, their son, Yosi, and his mother, Malka, at Kibbutz Nof Harim in Upper Galilee. His house overlooks the kibbutz fence, which also serves as a border between Israel and Lebanon. At Hannah’s wedding, Emanuel displays good-hearted boisterousness, along with discomfiture in the company of university people. Hannah, Michael, and Yair spend Passover at the kibbutz in 1959.
Dr. Jenia Ganz-Crispin
Dr. Jenia Ganz-Crispin, one of Michael’s four paternal aunts. A pediatrician in Tel Aviv, she generously helps her nephew’s family but is stern and old-fashioned in the process. For example, she chastises Hannah for getting pregnant so soon after marriage, which she fears will impede Michael’s academic progress. She also quarrels with Hannah’s mother over where Yair’s crib should be placed when mother and son come home from the hospital. Aunt Jenia’s first marriage ended when her gynecologist husband ran away with another woman. Her second husband is an actor who suffers a nervous breakdown, after which she has to care for him for years. After Mr. Glick dies, she arranges a place for Mrs. Glick at a nursing home with which she is associated.
Aziz, Hannah’s childhood Arab playmates who figure in her later dreams and fantasies. Hannah recalls building a snowman of the British High Commissioner with them in the winter of 1941. She also remembers that she was able to order the two boys around. The boys, to whom Hannah refers together as “Halziz,” may tangentially represent the Arab threat to Israel, but directly they represent for Hannah a childhood in which she had some control and a significant role, in contrast with adult life, in which she feels that she has neither. Hannah recalls having wished as a child that she was a boy and not a girl. The novel ends with a fantasy of a successful commando raid that Halil and Aziz carry out at Hannah’s command.
Yardena, a tall, blonde, green-eyed, heavy-lipped geology classmate of Michael when he meets Hannah. Yardena, who calls Michael a genius, later comes to him for help with examinations and her thesis. Hannah resents her bold ways and sexy appearance and senses Michael’s attraction to her when he goes to her apartment in early 1959 to oversee her typing of his doctoral thesis.
Abba, Hannah’s best friend and her husband, an up-and-coming civil servant in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. They put their maid, Simcha, at Hannah’s disposal when Dr. Urbach prescribes rest for Hannah after the birth of Yair. Abba later accepts a position in Switzerland as an Israeli economic attaché. At their departure, Hannah cries. Hadassah tells her, “You’ll reach your goal.” Hannah’s thought, however, is “Is it possible that everyone except me has come to terms with time . . . and achievement?”
Avraham Kadishman, the owner of a well-known shoe store. At Aunt Leah’s request, he made inquiries about Hannah and her family before Hannah and Michael married. A widower, he becomes a regular visitor to their apartment to play chess with Michael. When he dies in May, 1957, of a kidney disease, he leaves his books to the Gonens.
Mr. Glick, the owner of a haberdashery and an upstairs neighbor to Michael and Hannah. His wife, Duba, is institutionalized for hysteria. Subsequently, after discovering Michael’s interest in stamps, he offers his collection to Michael in exchange for permission to visit their apartment to read articles in Encyclopaedia Hebraica. His wife, formerly a full-bodied, sensuous woman, returns home from the hospital apathetic and submissive. After Mr. Glick’s death in 1959, she takes up residence at a private nursing home.
Dr. Urbach, of Alfandani Street, the polite and solicitous Gonen family physician. A tiny man with a sad and sympathetic look in his eyes, he prescribes rest for Hannah after Yair’s birth and later treats Hannah for her sore throat, loss of speech, and nervous condition. At one point, he prescribes that she not talk. After his death in the winter of 1959, Hannah reports that her new doctor is unable to discern any reason for her symptoms.
Aunt Leah Ganz
Aunt Leah Ganz, one of Michael’s four paternal aunts. Michael and Hannah stay at her Tel Aviv apartment for a five-day summer holiday in 1958. One day on the beach, Hannah tears Michael’s shirt and scratches his face. In response to Aunt Leah’s questions about his appearance, Michael says that he had an altercation with thugs.