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Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Thera" by Zeruya Shalev (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Zeruya Shalev at the Institute for Translation of Hebrew Literature
Order "Thera" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "Thera" is a book that I picked up from the B&N bookshelves because of the title and cover without knowing anything about the author or subject, only to discover a blurb that was not quite what generally interests me. But I opened it at random and the moment I read the first sentence I was just hooked and I knew I had to read it "now". On finishing it, I was so impressed by its extraordinary voice that I had to talk about it as soon as possible...

A November 2010 translation from Hebrew by H. Sachs and Mitch Ginsburg, the novel has been published originally in Israel in 2005, being the fourth novel of the author and the third translated into multiple languages and getting widespread acclaim.

"A woman, who suddenly decides to forsake her husband for brilliant fantasies of freedom and independence, confronts a complicated reality: unexpected isolation, awakening doubts, guilt, sorrow, and the troubles of her small son trying to adapt to a new situation.

Unexpectedly and paradoxically, the family Ella Miller destroys becomes a radiant fantasy in itself, and she sinks into an agonizing longing for the sheltering secure framework of her previous life, even when a new love, both promising and happy, finally comes her way. It goes on even when she tries to build a united family with her new love and his children. The new life turns out to be an unbelievably complicated learning process, a path paved with upsets that at times demand more of her than she ever thought she could give."

ANALYSIS: "Thera" is narrated in first person by 36 year old Ella Fisher, an archaeologist with slightly unorthodox theories about how the famous ancient volcanic explosion on the Mediterranean Island of Thera - Santorini - led to the freedom of the Jewish people in Egypt and the biblical exodus under Moses.

The novel is set in Jerusalem of the present day - as of original publication 2005 more or less - and follows Ella's increasingly complicated life over a relatively short span of time at least as narration goes. Despite seemingly being contently married with a colleague and former mentor and having a son she dotes on who is just starting school, one day Ella decides to kick out her husband Ammon for various reasons that are slowly revealed in the book.

"Thera" is a deceptively fast read despite its 400+ pages - the first person narrative and relative short time frame of the action essentially make it so - and the book is superbly written and translated. The storyline of the novel is less important than the way it is told and the portrait of Ella, her son Gili, the men in her life and the other two children of her "second family" and their relationship with Gili and herself make Thera work beautifully. The story alternates moods very well and the ending is also excellent capping a truly unexpected hit for me.

There are lots of poignant moments: when Ella essentially forces her way in Ammon's new apartment to see how her son copes there in her absence on one of the days when his father has custody - after more or less inveigling the address from Gili - and overwhelmed by the domestic feeling she experiences, she tries to get Ammon back after kicking him out not long ago, or when she has to cope with her son's school friends all having "full families" and has musings crudely put as where are the divorce statistics when you need them?

Later when she falls together with another "shipwrecked soul" partly by chance, partly with a little manipulation on her part, the story goes back to a more content semi-domestic mood though again not without its problems, not least the 3 children thrown together who have to sort of cope with the new arrangements - another poignant scene is when she buys six card packs for Gili and his new 'step brother' to share and Gili alternates between being happy to get them and suspicion that were not the other boy there he would have got all six for himself...

The above may seem a little banal in some ways, but the way the book flows is just impressive and Thera was a real pleasure to read end to end, so I truly urge you to try the available sample on Amazon and see if it instantly hooks you the way it happened with me.

As the setting goes, everything reads as normal for a modern Western prosperous city while the sometimes unusual facts of modern life in Jerusalem - eg schools have guards, men are often away on army duty... - are just presented matter of fact as are the various aspects of Jewish belief and culture inserted masterfully by the author.

Overall, Thera (A++) is just a superb piece of literary fiction that flows so well that is more of a page turner than most action oriented novels.


mariana said...

i loved this book! I read the trilogy.
Now, I am reading KEEV and I am very impressed by the story and especially by the epic talent of this amazing and wonderful writer.


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