by Nicole Krauss
from the October 3, 2022 issue of The New Yorker
Nicole Krauss is always reliable. I haven’t loved each of her books or stories, but I always get something from them and I always come away thinking she is a great writer, and though she is not unknown I wish she were better known. In “Shelter” she addresses a middle-aged character, and I found her interview with Deborah Treisman to be as interesting as many stories in the magazine: “As a younger person, I used to think of middle age the way many coastal people driving across the country think of the Midwet: as a huge, vaguely menacing, but mostly boring expanse where one contemplates how far one has come and how far one still has to go.” She says she realizes now how she was greatly mistaken. In this story, a man named Cohen is surprised to find himself helping deliver a baby within a mamak, or a safe room, in Tel Aviv.
Krauss chooses to start this story by throwing us right into that situation, though with almost no distance to see what’s going on:
The paradox of personal religion: God has abandoned me, so I’ll pray. On my knees. The sky exploding. And her on her back, gasping from the pain, making use of all the Arabic curses.
I didn’t know who was speaking. I didn’t know how the sky was exploding. I didn’t know why a woman was on her back in pain, let alone cursing in Arabic. But Krauss backs up with the next paragraph and
Cohen saw the pregnant woman five or six times before they ended up together in the mamak, a room with reinforced-concrete walls, a heavy, sealed window, and a steel vault of a door, that can protect residents from deadly gas, earthquakes, or the blast of rockets, one room on each floor, stacked atop one another, creating a core of safe rooms in the building.
She lived across the hall from the apartment he’d Airbnb’ed. One of those young Tel Avivian women who looked like they’d learned krav maga at the breast, waited enough tables to be able to size up what you wanted, everything you wanted, with a glance, and never apologized. Nose-ringed. Silver-bangled. Carrying low, the way his wife had when she was pregnant with their sons, the younger of whom was now nearly old enough to be drafted, but would never be, since he was not Israeli but American. A boy: the first time he saw her in the hall, the afternoon he arrived from the airport, he’d had the urge to offer her this bit of folksy wisdom that older women had once bestowed on his young and pregnant wife, but she’d passed right by him, used to the constant stream of Americans struggling with the lockbox of WOW! Super Nice Apartment in the Heart of TLV.
It’s interesting to contemplate how these two characters will collide in that mamak.