In an interview with the Jewish Independent in 2014, after her book The Remains of Love came out in English, Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev said that, until that novel, she had been avoiding writing directly about what she called “the Israeli reality.” She said at the time: “And yet, still I am wrestling with the dominance of this reality, and try not to let it take over my books – it’s enough that it controls my life.”
Shalev’s latest novel to be translated into English is all about the Israel reality, but not in the engaging and provocative way that The Remains of Love was (see jewishindependent.ca/zeruya-shalev-opens-jewish-book-fest). Concisely called Pain, Shalev’s story about a Jerusalem woman suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome, which flares up on the 10-year anniversary of when she was seriously injured in a terrorist attack, is anything but concise. Translated ably by Sondra Silverston, the book needed a better editor, as Shalev gets lost in the physical and emotional suffering of her protagonist Iris, who is not portrayed likeably.
Despite being the respected principal of a successful school, despite being married to a perhaps dull but well-meaning husband (who could well be distant because of his wife’s indifference to him) and despite raising two competent and kind but vulnerable children, one of whom desperately needs her help, Iris cannot let go of a lost love from her teenage years. When, by chance, at a clinic, she meets Eitan, the man who left her so abruptly so long ago – he is now a doctor who specializes in the treatment of pain – Iris goes headlong into the fantasy of what her life could have been with him, despite all indications that he’s a selfish and emotionally stunted ass. She considers leaving everything tangible and good that she has built for herself for a life that never was.
There are some astute observations in this novel – about trauma and how it affects not only the person injured but those who love them, about the harmful effects of living in the past, about forgiveness, about the fickle nature of life, and more – but it gets lost in Iris’s nearly interminable self-pity and self-delusion. Pain is not Shalev’s best work.