Family’s poisoned legacy
The Remains of Love
By Zeruya Shalev Bloomsbury, 422pp, $29.99
IT’S almost impossible to read Zeruya Shalev’s The Remains of Love without reflecting on Molly Bloom lying in bed at the end of Ulysses, musing on love and redemption, sex and family, life and loss. Even the inner monologues of the Israeli novelist’s characters approach James Joyce’s stream-ofconsciousness technique.
This is not to undervalue Shalev’s extraordinary achievement in this latest novel, which demonstrates her virtuosity with the musicality of language and skill in exposing the strengths and weaknesses of ordinary people.
The Remains of Love is a book about obsession. Ostensibly, it deals with a woman’s final days and her reflections on life and death. But beneath the surface are undercurrents of the most profound emotions: the love of parents for children and its reciprocation, the strengths that bind families and the stresses that pull them apart.
As Hemda Horovitz, approaching her 80th year, lies dying in a Jerusalem hospital, she ponders the nature of the room that has become her world. Her daughter Dina and son Avner spend time with her, yet Hemda realises with a resigned anger they do so out of duty and compassion, not love. Both are emotionally withdrawn to a point of coldness.
But in extremis Hemda has an insight into her own childhood and upbringing. She realises she has damaged her children; Dina desperately wanted love and affection whereas Avner felt suffocated by his mother. And this has carried through to her children’s relationships with their families.
Avner married his first girlfriend as an escape from his parents’ home and now suffers a loveless relationship. Dina has an unhappy relationship with her 16-year-old daughter Nitzan. As Dina sees Nitzan growing increasingly removed emotionally, she becomes obsessed with adopting another child, much to the horror of her family.
Avner is also conflicted, blaming his upbringing for the emotional problems within his marriage. Visiting his mother in hospital, he observes a couple nearby, and the way in which the woman gives such tender, loving consolation to the dying man. The depth of love and empathy he observes shows him how cowardly he has been by remaining in his own loveless marriage, and he seeks out this woman to try to understand her relationship.
At times the narrative is difficult and the environment claustrophobic, and Shalev’s refusal to use quotation marks makes it hard to differentiate between reflection and reality, but The Remains of Love is an intensely satisfying novel. It makes us reflect on our upbringing, and the parenting of our children.
Shalev skilfully portrays the stark reality of a mother’s dying regrets and the consequent emancipation of her children. The Remains of Love is a novel from a writer at the zenith of her abilities, one who sees not just inside the human heart but deeply into the mind.