Two siblings ponder radical changes to their lives—emphasis on the pondering—in the face of their mother’s imminent passing.
Shalev’s latest novel (Thera, 2010, etc.) alternates among three perspectives of a Jewish family in Jerusalem. Hemda, at death’s door, recalls her upbringing on a kibbutz and heavy-handed treatment by her father in dreamlike prose. She receives regular visits by her son and daughter, but the two have issues of their own. Avner is a lawyer who defends people on the wrong side of the Israeli bureaucracy, which is to say he often loses, and he’s increasingly wounded by his harridan wife. Dina, meanwhile, is in her mid-40s and dealing with a difficult tween daughter, yet she’s hoping to adopt a son—much to the unhappiness of her husband, who’d anticipated a quiet middle age. Avner is thunderstruck by the woman caring for the dying man in the bed next to his mother’s, which leads to a series of misadventures as he tries to locate her. There, and in Dina’s mournful paging through adoption websites, Shalev explores how we express affection and how we discover new reserves of it when all seems lost. Credit Shalev for not making a bluntly sentimental novel out of such themes. But it’s an overlong and overwritten one, built on run-on sentences that moodily bear Avner’s and Dina’s emotions like slow-moving, sludgy rivers. Somewhat lost amid the siblings’ crises is Hemda, who opens the novel with some potent observations about kibbutz life and the urge to please a parent, and her fuzzy state of consciousness seems to justify Shalev’s woolly prose. But as Hemda becomes a mere plot device and symbol of how life goes on, that power dissipates.
Intended as a careful meditation on love, it’s mostly a somber and drowsy one.