It’s 1995, and Mia, a recent high school grad from Toronto, has arrived in Jerusalem to study at a Jewish seminary. Encouraged by her devout but sheltered friend Aviva, Mia has only recently taken an interest in practicing her faith. Her absentee, non-Jewish father is a musician who has come in and out of her life, and her social activist mother is highly critical of religious orthodoxy. Mia’s home life has been miserable of late, and her sudden interest in religion is clearly part of a quest for certainty.
Almost as soon as she arrives, Mia has doubts about Aviva’s claim that “other people fought for Israel, and all we need to do is come.” These doubts surface during a visit to the Western Wall: “‘This is home,’ I whispered. But it wasn’t. It was just a stone wall in a very hot foreign country.” Frustratingly, her law class at the seminary debates the minutiae of kosher protocol, but fails to deal with the big questions Mia wants answered. On a school trip, she learns how a particular forest was planted over the remains of a Palestinian village. Until then, it hadn’t occurred to her that securing the Jewish homeland came at anyone else’s expense.
In this state of mind, Mia encounters a young street busker who fills her in on the plight of the Palestinians. After a car bomb nearly kills them both, Mia is put off organized religion for good.
Based on Lieberman’s own experiences, The Book of Trees is not a novel that suffers from ambiguity of message: it takes the firm position that Jewish appropriation and destruction of Palestinian lands is wrong. The characters who stand up for Israel are inevitably portrayed as wilfully blinkered and naive. Lieberman’s directness is refreshing, but the novel is overly long and Mia’s apostasy unconvincingly quick. Credit is due, though, for a hilarious passage in which Mia stresses about whether or not a pair of edible underwear she buys as a gift is kosher. (Indeed, parents and librarians should be aware that the book contains a fair helping of raunchy teenage lust.)