Love and pain are intertwined in Zeruya Shalev's newly translated novel

Shalev sets the tone in an impressive and vivid account of a woman trying to deal with events she cannot control

Police forensic experts work at the scene of a terrorist bombing attack in Talpiot, Jerusalem on April 18, 2016. An explosion tore through a bus and set a second bus on fire, wounding 21 people, two critically.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Police forensic experts work at the scene of a terrorist bombing attack in Talpiot, Jerusalem on April 18, 2016. An explosion tore through a bus and set a second bus on fire, wounding 21 people, two critically.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
‘Here it is, back again, and although she’s been expecting it for years, she is surprised. Back again as if it never let go, as if she didn’t live a day without it, a month without it, a year.”
Iris, the protagonist of Zeruya Shalev’s Pain (Other Press) is awakened by pain 10 years after being deeply wounded by a suicide bomber who blew himself up next to her. Ten years since the traumatic event that disrupted her life and family, resulting in a number of surgeries to stitch her body back together, and endless hours at work to build a successful career as a school principal, the pain returns. When her husband reminds her of that dreadful date “as if it was a birthday and an anniversary,” she searches her memory to understand what he meant, coming to the conclusion that she has never gotten rid of it in the first place.
In an attempt to find a cure, Iris meets again with Eitan, the love of her youth, who sweeps her into an inopportune yet necessary expedition to the past. Eitan’s return, together with the memories of his brutal departure, shifts the layers of unresolved and unacknowledged agony and frustration underneath Iris’s seemingly successful yet unfulfilling life and recovery. Love and pain are intertwined and pulsating in the protagonist’s body, waiting for a simple question, “Remember today’s date?” to erupt.
Shalev sets the tone in an impressive and vivid account of a woman trying to deal with events she cannot control, decisions made by others that changed the course of her life. How do we accept the course of events that follow loss and heartbreak? Are they under one’s control or are they part of a reality one must simply accept? Can a love, a first love, be so overwhelmingly powerful and disruptive that it forever annihilates one’s capacity to ever love again?
Those are some of the questions the passive protagonist, who has become the victim of circumstances, ponders. The book, however, is far from being a passive reading. It’s a work that brings the reader into an emotional roller coaster, demanding that we reevaluate our choices, our lack of choices, and the path that has brought us to where we are.
AS THE late Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once said in an interview, “A writer must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely.” This is something Shalev does all too well, being that the author herself was a victim of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in 2004. Her visceral and textured descriptions of physical discomfort and agonizing pain add another dimension to the protagonist’s psychological complexity.
The utterly realistic prose is very much grounded in Israeli reality, and therefore, it’s deeply political. The terrorist attack is not the only dark side of Israeli reality to which Iris falls prey – she still mourns her childhood loss of her father to war, and the unwanted pact between Israeli mothers and the country of sending their children to the army.
Iris faces further struggles of power – that of her daughter’s search for meaning and spirituality away from her family and surroundings, becoming submissive to an older man who promises to have the key to set her free. The present family drama leads Iris to understand that the turbulences that have recently disrupted her life can be channeled into action and her refusal to become a victim.
As the novel progresses, Shalev departs from the main narrative into the relationship between Iris and her daughter, and Iris’s attempt to repair her shattered family. Later developments, however, turn theatrical, melodramatic even, in sharp contrast to the book’s subtle and refined beginning. The novel comes to an abrupt end, with some threads still hanging in the air, much like a musical composition that finishes on a higher note, without cadence and lacking a sense of completion.
In this meditation on pain, one can vividly experience, thanks to Shalev’s penetrating prose, the shrapnel still lingering in Iris’s body, the shrill pain that climbs up her spine and leaves her paralyzed, and the general exhaustion of putting the physical suffering aside to focus on anything else. The devastating experience of losing love and hope, of gathering the pieces after having her heart shattered, of getting out of herself and avoiding further damage – all of this is palpable in Shalev’s prose and Sondra Silverston’s exquisite translation from Hebrew.  
Beyond physical distress and agonizing heartbreak, however, the book is also a meditation on love, self-love, family love and acceptance – a scrutinizing reflection on the possibility of finding agency underneath trauma and torment, together with the power to change one’s perception about events that can never be changed.