The Woman Beyond the Sea

  • Review
By – March 20, 2023

Fol­low­ing the mas­sive­ly suc­cess­ful The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem, Sar­it Yishai-Levi’s new­ly trans­lat­ed nov­el, The Woman Beyond the Sea, depicts the lega­cies of three Jew­ish women born in the Land of Israel and the passed-down secrets that haunt them. Aching, sen­su­al, and com­plex, the book has the expan­sive feel of a clas­sic nov­el as well as the nuances of a con­tem­po­rary one.

The Woman Beyond the Sea begins when Eliya, a dropout of Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, accom­pa­nies her dis­solute hus­band to Paris. Their rela­tion­ship col­laps­es, and Eliya attempts to drown her­self in the sea — only to be res­cued by a surfer. She is referred to a psy­chi­a­trist. Dur­ing her recov­ery, she explores the root of her tur­moil: the rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, Lily, a harsh woman who is unforth­com­ing about her past.

Yishai-Levi’s prose, gor­geous­ly trans­lat­ed by Gilah Kahn-Hoff­mann, inter­weaves sev­er­al voic­es, includ­ing those of Eliya, Lily, and Lily’s hus­band, Shaul. Togeth­er, they cre­ate a mosa­ic of atti­tudes and sto­ries. Yishai-Levi also crafts com­pelling set­tings: she con­jures the British Man­date of Pales­tine as vivid­ly as she does the Israel of the six­ties and sev­en­ties. She shows sides of the coun­try that are rarely depict­ed — the con­vents that took in Jew­ish orphans, the sys­tem of pros­ti­tu­tion for British sol­diers, and the men­tal health strug­gles that per­sist through gen­er­a­tions fol­low­ing trauma.

The Woman Beyond the Sea is his­tor­i­cal with­out being overt­ly ped­a­gog­ic; it cap­tures the often unbear­able emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal toll of a nation’s devel­op­ment on indi­vid­ual inhab­i­tants. After fin­ish­ing this nov­el, read­ers will feel that they know these char­ac­ters inti­mate­ly. They will also learn about the emer­gence of Israel. Any­one with unre­solved fam­i­ly trau­ma — and the desire to say what has gone unsaid — will rec­og­nize their fam­i­ly in Eliya’s.

Ariel­la Carmell is a Brook­lyn-based writer of plays and prose. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where she stud­ied lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sier­ra Neva­da Review, the Brook­lyn review, and elsewhere.

Discussion Questions