The simple, almost banal titles of Zeruya Shalev's novels — "Love Life," "Husband and Wife," "Late Family" — hint at variations on a single theme: domestic harmony. In actual fact, Shalev blends in contrapuntal refrains: conjugal discord, sibling rivalry and household tension. In her latest novel, "The Remains of Love" (Bloomsbury, 422 pages, $26), Shalev continues this strain and captivates the reader by setting the tangle and kinks of family ties against the backdrop of modern Israel.
This is a weighty book but with a compact cast, the result being separate family dramas rather than one big family saga. There is matriarch Hemda Horovitz approaching the end of her life after suffering a fall; son Avner, a lawyer who fights for the rights of the poor and downtrodden; and daughter Dina, a lecturer in medieval history. Shalev rotates her characters, flitting from one perspective to another, and in so doing affords the reader glimpses of shared histories and individual plights.
Hemda, immobile in bed in Jerusalem and drifting in and out of consciousness, can do little but hark back and review her memories. We hear she was an only child, and the first child born in the kibbutz in which she later toils. In adulthood, after a rocky marriage, she becomes "a wife who didn't love her husband, a teacher who didn't like teaching, a mother who didn't know how to bring up children, a storyteller who couldn't put anything into writing."
Characters on their deathbed replaying their past is a familiar trope in fiction: a famous example is Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient," but just as eventful is Penelope Lively's superlative "Moon Tiger." However, Shalev judiciously realizes that Hemda's tale, though interesting, is not strong enough to carry the book, and so relegates it to a strand by bringing in her children's dual perspectives. Avner, disenchanted with wife, job and country, notices a loving couple's last moments together in his mother's ward. After the man dies, Avner becomes infatuated with the woman, tracks her down and embarks on a relationship in which love and consolation help overcome her grief and his loneliness. Dina also wants to love anew, but in the form of adopting a child. The more she struggles to convince husband Gideon and daughter Nitzan that her need is sincere, the more cracks materialize and threaten the precarious family foundations.
Shalev's characters are fascinating to behold. Their lives are filled with births and deaths, old flames and new loves, family ruptures and reconciliations. We are flashed penetrating truths regarding "the Moloch of marriage" and shown Israel as "a lost, desperate country, always going from extreme to extreme." Shalev eschews direct speech, preferring her characters to converse without signposts and in the same paragraph, which initially requires more work for the reader but eventually leads to a deeper reading experience. And the book's last section in a Siberian orphanage offers a thrilling and incredibly moving conclusion.
"The Remains of Love" is both a splashy panorama and an ornately drawn triptych. Shalev's cast may be small, but throughout they are consumed and beset by two huge concerns: What to do with the remains of love and the remains of life.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.