All Is Safe Here – Anneleen Van Offel
Our story begins when Lydia, a Belgian doctor, receives an alarming message from her stepson Immanuel in Israel, asking her to come to visit him there. Her Jewish ex-husband had moved there with him ten years ago and since then, Lydia has neither seen nor heard from him.
Once she arrives, it’s already too late. She learns that after living there and doing military service, at just 23-years-old, her stepson has died from an overdose.
From there unfolds a harrowing story of horrible distance and distance from both mother and father towards their child. While his mother had no contact with him for a decade, his father had remarried an Orthodox Jewish woman with three daughters and became fanatically obsessed with the story of his country. His fanaticism blinds his perspective, meaning he can’t see that his son did not share his beliefs. A father who cannot empathise with his son at all.
Lydia visits the place on the outskirts of Tel Aviv where Immanuel stayed on the streets in the time leading up to his death. She searches for points of recognition with her son through retracing the steps of his life. She visits Hebron and the surroundings where he stayed, sees young men in the army and their reactions and tries to think about how it must have been for him. Out of sheer boredom, Arabs and Arab children are bullied and tyrannised, including tourists. The story of the son unfolds through the visit of the mother who asks herself: ‘How did he experience all that?’
The alienation between her husband and son becomes clear. A clash of cultures, the distance between them all and the torn family fabric soon becomes visible. Though Lydia had allowed her ex-husband’s cultural practices for her child, he remained a stranger to her, which ultimately just led to distance between them. No doubt a distressing situation for many today; a very contemporary problem is spelt out here.
Lydia learns more stories from Immanuel’s life, such as a time father and son visited the Yad Vashem museum. The father is not very empathetic and acts selfishly towards his son, acting as though only his feelings and his vision are important. He overwhelms the child, is indifferent to his son’s feelings and doesn’t pay enough attention to him.
Things were not so great at home either. Immanuel had to often clean up for the other children, with who he felt he had little in common. They had nothing to say to each other and he could not count on his mother. He was left alone and did not speak the language, finding it hard to connect to the world around him.
It expresses the total emotional neglect of Immanuel by the parents and the denial of his individuality. He was often treated like a babysitter for the girls, despite them being as old as the son. Finding loneliness at home, in the army and with friend Ofra, left him craving to be missed and accepted by someone.
The book provides insight into an alternating mother-son narrative with the mother tracing his whereabouts and trying to empathise with his struggles – only to find she is too late.
A very poignant but contemporary story of parents who are so focused on pursuing their own lives or are so culturally different that the child falls through the gaps is no longer important but is an appendage.
A mature story by a very young writer.