When conflict arose between Israel and Gaza two years ago, author Jemma Wayne noticed 2014 had become something of “a tipping point”.
There was an alarming rise in anti-Semitic attacks, allegations of media bias, boycotts against not just Israeli but kosher products, and thousands of protesters marching with placards reading “Hitler, you were right”.
But amid this latest wave of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, Wayne couldn’t help but notice there was also a “sense of triumphalism from both sides of the conflict”, which claimed the lives of 2,100 Palestinians and 71 Israelis.
“I was used to seeing Palestinians cheering the deaths of Israelis, but this was the first time I saw the reverse image – Israelis celebrating tragedy in Gaza,” explains the north London-based author, who this week sees the publication of her second novel, Chains of Sand.
“People were not responding with any amount of sympathy or regret or acknowledging the humanity of the situation, but instead with these passionate justifications of why Israel was right.
“That’s not to say Israel wasn’t within its legal rights, just that people had been pushed to these really polarised extremes and had lost any kind of ability to make a moral judgement on these actions that were taking place.”
As with many situations in life, the established journalist and Jewish News columnist refused to see the conflict as mere black and white and decided to put pen to paper to “explore the grey”.
Chains of Sand, billed as the first fictional account of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, revolves around the parallel stories of 26-year-old Israeli army veteran Udi, who is desperate to start his life over again by moving to Britain, and Daniel, an apathetic north London banker who wants to change his life by making aliyah.
The story is interspersed with the bittersweet tale of star-crossed teenagers Dara, who comes from a Jewish background, and Kaseem, a Muslim. As the story unfolds, it becomes clearer how their relationship impacts on the others.
Wayne, the daughter of American composer and music producer Jeff Wayne, tells me the seeds for Chains of Sand were first sown in 2006.
That year, her husband’s cousin, an IDF soldier, moved from Israel to London, while one of her close friends moved to Israel.
“I found this flow of humanity really intriguing,” she tells me. “When people emigrate, it’s often at a moment of either great hope or desperation and I was just really interested in what propelled those journeys.”
The year 2006 also marked Israel’s war with Lebanon and Wayne noticed an increasing sense of “conflation between ‘Israeli’ and ‘Jewish’.”
She adds that it was the first time she felt “the Jewish element of one’s identity had become more salient than it was before”.
Those feelings remained bubbling under the surface until the next conflict in 2014, when she decided to address the issue in earnest. That said, her book is not a mere vehicle for her own opinions and Wayne makes a point of stressing she wanted to show viewpoints from all sides.
I ask if she was concerned that her fictional account of the Israel-Gaza conflict would in itself cause a stir among her readers.
“When it comes to this conflict, there are always going to be people who hate what you say and then there will be people who will say you haven’t said it strongly enough,” replies Wayne.
“So you always risk offending some people. In my book, there are characters from all sides of the spectrum and there will probably be some my readers don’t agree with.
“But that’s the nature of this conflict – and that was one of the most attractive things I found in confronting it.”
Within the political framework of her story, Chains of Sand also revolves around questions of identity and destiny. Udi is shown as a man conflicted between what he must do as a vessel of state against his own personal beliefs. On the one hand, he feels lack of power over his life and yet, as a soldier, he fears he has too much.
“For him it’s about finding a balance and taking back control of his life,” adds Wayne. Similarly, north-west Londoner Dan fights the comfortable yet passionless life he lives as a Jew in Britain.
“He has this pressure of feeling he’s not as worthy as his grandparents, who are survivors, or as successful as his father, who made his career from nothing. He looks around and sees all these people who are passionate about things and he wants to feel that same passion – that’s what he catches a taste of in Israel, a much younger, dynamic country where he can really make a mark.”
While Wayne’s novel certainly references her experience of living in north-west London, she was very conscious to make her characters sufficiently different from herself.
“In a sense, I was glad I chose a male character, as that added enough sense of distance for me. My last book featured three female protagonists, all from totally different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. This shift of writing in a different gender was much more of a challenge to me.”
However, it was also important to her that “the female voice is heard as well”, and Wayne’s novel shifts between different narrative voices of both genders throughout the story.
The married mother-of-two, who jests that she “snatches hours when I can” to work on her writing between caring for her young children, says she feels proud of her latest work and was propelled by the critical acclaim she received for her debut novel, After Before, which made the long-list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize.
She adds: “I was surprised and so happy, particularly with the Baileys listing, because that’s always been the prize I’ve looked to when I want a recommendation for a good book. To be listed among those writers was a proud moment. It had been a long road to get my first novel published, so it really made me feel validated as an author.”
• Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne is published by Legend Press at £9.99 and is available now.