Following the massively successful The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, Sarit Yishai-Levi’s newly translated novel, The Woman Beyond the Sea, depicts the legacies of three Jewish women born in the Land of Israel and the passed-down secrets that haunt them. Aching, sensual, and complex, the book has the expansive feel of a classic novel as well as the nuances of a contemporary one.
The Woman Beyond the Sea begins when Eliya, a dropout of Tel Aviv University, accompanies her dissolute husband to Paris. Their relationship collapses, and Eliya attempts to drown herself in the sea — only to be rescued by a surfer. She is referred to a psychiatrist. During her recovery, she explores the root of her turmoil: the relationship with her mother, Lily, a harsh woman who is unforthcoming about her past.
Yishai-Levi’s prose, gorgeously translated by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann, interweaves several voices, including those of Eliya, Lily, and Lily’s husband, Shaul. Together, they create a mosaic of attitudes and stories. Yishai-Levi also crafts compelling settings: she conjures the British Mandate of Palestine as vividly as she does the Israel of the sixties and seventies. She shows sides of the country that are rarely depicted — the convents that took in Jewish orphans, the system of prostitution for British soldiers, and the mental health struggles that persist through generations following trauma.
The Woman Beyond the Sea is historical without being overtly pedagogic; it captures the often unbearable emotional and psychological toll of a nation’s development on individual inhabitants. After finishing this novel, readers will feel that they know these characters intimately. They will also learn about the emergence of Israel. Anyone with unresolved family trauma — and the desire to say what has gone unsaid — will recognize their family in Eliya’s.
Ariella Carmell is a Brooklyn-based writer of plays and prose. She graduated from the University of Chicago, where she studied literature and philosophy. Her work has appeared in Alma, the Sierra Nevada Review, the Brooklyn review, and elsewhere.