Pain: A Novel

  • Review
By – April 27, 2020

In Pain, Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev’s fifth nov­el, Iris is deal­ing with the tit­u­lar state in many forms. Ten years pri­or to the events in the book, she was the vic­tim of a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing in Jerusalem, her home­town, which left her with scar­ring and inter­mit­tent pain. Pain” is also the pseu­do­nym she gives her for­mer lover, Eitan, in her phone’s con­tacts after she meets him again by chance. Eitan is a respect­ed doc­tor tasked with treat­ing her old nerve pain, and even after near­ly thir­ty years apart, the two fall back in love.

The begin­ning of the nov­el focus­es most­ly on Iris’s affair, which moves a touch slow­ly and feels like famil­iar lit­er­ary ground. Iris describes Eitan in dra­mat­ic terms, regret­ting how they had part­ed ways, that even if she was about to mar­ry, even if she was about to give birth, she would have gone back to him.” But she is smart enough to real­ize that her rela­tion­ship may be open­ing old wounds, like the nerve end­ings of hers Eitan describes which have nev­er ful­ly healed. At the same time, Iris, a school prin­ci­pal, is also man­ag­ing the stress of her work and fam­i­ly life — par­tic­u­lar­ly her daugh­ter Alma’s uneasy change at the hands of her boss, a cult-leader-like figure.

The book comes togeth­er towards the end after Iris and her hus­band, Mick­ey, go to see Alma in Tel Aviv. Mick­ey seems con­tent to let their daugh­ter live her own life, and it seems as though Iris may be over­re­act­ing with regard to the pow­er Alma’s boss has. She speaks shril­ly” to Mick­ey and plays the bad­ger­ing wife, until he says, Do I have a choice? I know you, you won’t give up until you see that I’m right.” In a sur­pris­ing (and grat­i­fy­ing) turn, Iris per­haps had rea­son to be worried.

Being proven right is a short-lived vic­to­ry. At the heart of the book seems to be Shalev’s view that as a woman, Iris’s choic­es will always be fraught. She believes she spent too much time with her stu­dents and thus neglect­ed Alma; if she goes to see Eitan, she wor­ries con­stant­ly that she will be found out. By con­trast, both Eitan, who is twice divorced and sees his chil­dren only occa­sion­al­ly, and Mick­ey, who is for­ev­er escap­ing into online chess games, appear to be rel­a­tive­ly unencumbered.

In the back of Iris’s mind seems to be the shad­ow of vio­lence, which is not dealt with explic­it­ly but has touched almost every aspect of her life, from the death of her father in war to her teenage son’s impend­ing draft notice. Even the lan­guage Iris uses to describe her sur­round­ings, when she is hur­ry­ing through the streets of Tel Aviv, is war-like: it is as if mis­siles are being fired at the city and she has to find shel­ter.” It is a haunt­ing com­par­i­son for the North Amer­i­can read­er, lucky enough to nev­er have to think about mis­siles. But the specter of tragedy in Israel is pre­sent­ed as a sim­ple fact of life — just as Iris’s pain is for her.

Discussion Questions