A woman lies dying in Jerusalem and her children gather around her during her final days to tend to her last needs. This is a familiar familial scene for most readers. But Zeruya Shalev writes about the family drama with poetical prose that will challenge the reader during the final journey of a family that may or may not be an allegory for modern Israel.
The dying matriarch Hemda was raised on a kibbutz by a stern father and frequently absent mother. Within the institutionalized family structure of the kibbutz, which is alternately claustrophobic, alienating, and embracing, Hemda longs for freedom. She is pushed into a loveless marriage that produces two children she can never fully embrace or nurture. The son is smothered with attention, as if in desperation Hemda tries to give to one child all the love she never experienced, while the daughter, Dina, feels neglected. Dina vows to not repeat this with her own daughter and falls into despair as her little girl begins to grow away from her mother into a rebellious teen.
As Hemda’s impending death hangs over the family it creates tensions from words unspoken and explosions of long repressed longing and anger. While these are not unfamiliar themes, the author’s approach is what gives the book a different and unique look at a crumbling family.
It is not an easy read due to the style of the writer. Ms. Shalev writes with sparse punctuation, and the lack of quotation marks often leaves the reader wondering whether the sentences are conversation or interior dialogue: are these present events, or clouded memories?
This novel is more than an often-told story; it is an examination of loving too much and loving too little, the nature of love and what it brings to a life.