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Book review: The Remains of Love, By Zeruya Shalev, trans. Philip Simpson

This outstanding Israeli novel breaks taboos and tells tough truths about the ties that bind

This epic is a hypnotic study of an Israeli family by a novelist of immense talent. The Remains of Love centres on the dying days of Hemda Horovitz, an early child of the kibbutz movement. Hemda's damaged childhood shadows the lives of her daughter and granddaughter.

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The author's achievement is the subtle way she uses the cumulative effect of Hemda's shattered past to impact on her children and grandchildren. But, although the focus is on the transference of trauma down the generations, and how parents destroy their children's potential, there is a surprisingly redemptive ending.

The characters jump off the page. At the centre are Hemda's children. Dina, her daughter, is a bulimic middle-aged mother in despair at her only daughter's estrangement. She is both a rejected unloved daughter and mother who becomes obsessed with the idea of a second chance, by adopting a son. When a child is offered in a Siberian orphanage, Dina is prepared to risk her marriage for the unknown baby. Her brother Avner is a human-rights lawyer devoted to defending Palestinians. Both siblings are estranged from parent and spouse. Their bodies reflect their misery. Whereas Dina is emaciated, Avner has such a large belly that he cannot see his own penis.

The book is about obsession. Dina is obsessed by the chance of late motherhood. Avner is obsessed with finding the lover of a dying man he has briefly met. Both figures are exquisitely crafted. Shalev's characters free-associate, allowing the reader to experience their unconscious, dream and memory almost simultaneously.

What is also impressive is the raising of taboo subjects. Shalev reveals Hemda as a woman who is repelled by her daughter. She poignantly describes her distaste with being pregnant and her repulsion for her girl's flesh. Hemda cannot even sleep in the same room as Dina. There is also the clear revelation of a Jewish mother's preference for her son.

With Hemda's back-story, Shalev also expresses criticism of the narrow kibbutz order which discriminates against women's achievement. Also implicit in the novel is a criticism of Israel's displacement of Arabs from their lands. Avner's defence of Palestinians adds a fruitful tension. Rebuked by his intern, who thinks falsely raises his clients' hopes, Avner asks the toughest of questions, which can be put to both sides. "Is it possible to defend oneself without attacking?" The Remains of Love is an ambiguous title. Who is looking for what love and from whom? There is no answer, but a kind of satisfying final epiphany. The novel is a great work, and Philip Simpson's natural translation from the Hebrew makes Shalev's prose seem as if it were originally written in English.

Julia Pascal's new volume of plays will be published by Oberon in December

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