Review: A Woman In Jerusalem

The family and other explosive concepts


By David Herman, November 4, 2011
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By A B Yehoshua
Halban Publishing, £8.99

A B Yehoshua once wrote that what made his generation of writers so dominant in Israeli literature was the balance they found "between the revealed and the hidden".

He and Amos Oz, in particular, were hugely influenced by Agnon, "the supreme artist of folding and hidden-away drawers". Nowhere is this clearer than in Yehoshua's novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, now out in paperback.

On the surface, it seems like a thriller. It begins with a body. A young woman has been killed by a suicide bomb in Jerusalem. A pay-slip links her to a company and a newspaper article attacks the company for not sending anyone to the morgue. Once an employee is dead, big business no longer cares. The manager of human resources is called in by the owner of the company and told to investigate. What he finds out about the woman - and himself - is the centre of the novel. His investigation becomes a personal obsession, taking over his life.

It is a sad book about lonely, decent people living in hard times

But hidden away between the lines of Yehoshua's quiet novel, something else is going on. Behind the mystery of the dead woman, there is another set of preoccupations which has nothing to do with a lonely Russian immigrant tragically killed by a bomb.

First, there is an inquiry into one of Yehoshua's main preoccupations: the family. The manager of human resources (we never find out his name even though he is the central character) has only recently divorced and worries about his teenage daughter.The first thing he thinks about when he is called in by his boss is that he is due to collect her because his ex-wife is out of town. He in turn summons his secretary, who has to bring in her baby to work. The victim of the bomb is divorced and lives quite alone. Her teenage son lives back in central Asia. Everywhere, families are falling apart.

This, it seems, is part of the malaise of modern-day Israel. "Everything around is collapsing," says one character. But this is no jeremiad or polemic. There are calm, balanced references throughout to unemployment, army service and terrorism. The manager of human resources doesn't let his daughter take the bus because of fear of bombings. With great subtlety, a whole society and its concerns are brought to life.

The reader's eye is constantly caught by the telling detail between the lines. It is a sad book about lonely, decent people living through hard times. The two principal characters are those who try to do good. That's where their obsession leads them.

The real values that come to the surface in this deeply moral book are those of love and caring for each other in anxious and fragmented times. How we can live by these values is really the book's central concern.

David Herman is the JC's senior fiction reviewer

    Last updated: 11:44am, November 4 2011