Many women writers choose romantic love as the central theme of their literary work and an awful lot of them deal with it in a way that I don’t appreciate at all. Probably the latter is why for years I filled my shelves above all with male writings. The title of the book which I’m reviewing today makes expect a romance of the usual kind with qualities predestining it to sell well in the bookshops. In fact, The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev is a best-selling novel, but it’s not about a woman loving a man and their struggles to come together. The story which one of Israel's most popular and successful writers tells is about the emotional ties between parents and children, about injuries and obsessions.
Zeruya Shalev (צרויה שלו) was born at Kibbutz Kinneret on Lake of Tiberias, Israel, in May 1959. She pursued Bible studies at the University of Jerusalem and with the MA in her pocket she worked as a literary editor. In 1993 she brought out her first novel, Dancing, Standing Still (רקדתי עמדתי), which attracted little attention. Her literary breakthrough came only in 1997 with the novel Love Life (חיי אהבה) which gained the author immediate critical acclaim in Israel as well as internationally. The following novels Husband and Wife (בעל ואישה) and Thera (תרה) came out in 2000 and 2005 respectively and completed the trilogy. Each one of the three novels received important literature awards. Today Zeruya Shalev is an independent writer and lives in Jerusalem with her patchwork family. Her latest novel The Remains of Love (שארית החיים) was first released in 2011.
The Remains of Love traces the lives of Hemda Horovitz, her daughter Dina and her son Avner. The novel begins with almost eighty-year-old Hemda wondering at how big the tiny room of her apartment in Jerusalem seems now that she is too weak to leave her bed. In her mind, memories of the past mix with the disappointing present. She takes it ill that both her children come to see her only out of duty, but slowly she begins to realize that the roots of their emotional coldness towards her lie in her own feelings and childhood. Hemda could never love enough her daughter Dina while she enveloped her younger son Avner with all her love. Both children suffered. Dina desperately longed for love and a close relationship, while Avner felt suffocated by his mother’s affection. Avner married his first girl-friend only to get away from home. Now he is trapped in a marriage with two sons and no love left, but he doesn’t have the courage to change anything. Things take a new course for him, when he witnesses the loving consolations which a woman addresses to her dying husband in the hospital. He becomes obsessed with finding the couple and knowing their story. Dina isn’t happy, either. She has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Nitzan, who withdraws from her ever more and her husband Gideon doesn’t understand her feeling of loss. She still loves Gideon, but what she yearns for is the love of and for a child. She gets obsessed with the idea to adopt a boy from Siberia. As Hemda’s health deteriorates, her children step out of her shadow and liberating themselves from the emotional ties at last they take life into their own hands.
In the beginning The Remains of Love can be a bit confusing because Zeruya Shalev uses alternating streams of consciousness to tell the stories of Hemda and her children which inevitably means that the narrative perspective constantly changes. Each one of the protagonists experiences flashbacks shedding light on their past and helping them to understand why things are the way they are. Israeli history and politics are touched on several times revealing Zeruya Shalev’s critical point of view through the thoughts of her protagonists. The author also gives the kibbutzim in Israel much room because the conditions there explain many of the emotional injuries that the family suffered. The story is multi-layered and complex, but Zeruya Shalev narrates it with much skill and without contradictions or loose ends. All in all it’s easy to follow the plot.
Although I needed a page or two to get used to the long sentences, I thoroughly enjoyed The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev. The book offered me a glimpse into a country outside my usual literary perception and beyond media coverage of closed borders or conflicts regarding Jewish settlements. This alone would be reason enough for me to recommend the novel, but in addition it’s a really good read.
For a novel about life in Palestine see my review of The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti.