Life & Culture

How to Love Your Daughter review: Psychologically brilliant on a mother’s primal fear

Hila Blum's novel is a book that becomes part of you and helps you understand the world around you


EJ63P7 Cologne, Germany. 20th Mar, 2015. Israeli author Hila Blum reads at the international literature festival Lit.Cologne in Cologne, Germany, 20 March 2015. Photo: Horst Galuschka - NO WIRE SERVICE -/dpa/Alamy Live News

How to Love Your Daughter
by Hila Blum
Bloomsbury £16.99

Yoella travels from Israel to the Dutch city of Groningen. There she finds a house and stands across the street, watching the family inside, a mother and father and two little girls.

The girls are her granddaughters, but she has never met them. Their mother is her daughter Leah, who disappeared from her mother’s life years ago.

“And because I was watching my daughter and her family without their knowledge, I was vulnerable to witnessing what wasn’t mine to witness. I was running the spectator’s risk.”

The story of Yoella and the rift between her and her adored daughter Leah — what caused it, what she does about it — grips the reader right from the start of this award-winning novel, Blum’s first to be translated into English.

The psychological tension that grows as Yoella tells her story, in snippets, back and forth, like a conversation or therapy sessions, is masterfully maintained right until the last pages. But it’s the emotional intensity of the story, its authenticity that gives it its power, rather than the plot.

Twice as I was reading it I had long conversations with friends about their daughters — difficult, emotional conversations — and twice I hesitated to say, “you must read this wonderful book,” because what happens to Yoella — shut out of her daughter’s life, not even told that she has grand-daughters — is such a primal fear for mothers.

In a relationship in where boundaries too often bleed into nothingness, who hasn’t felt they might be getting it wrong? Leah, says Yoella, “was one of those girls who was endlessly loved by their parents and just a little less loved by the rest of the world, and there came a time when I sensed she resented that.”

Blum skilfully identifies the moments among what Yoella calls “the nights-upon-nights and days-upon-days” of motherhood where the seemingly unforgivable happens — although this is a story in which blame shifts between the generations back and forth, spectators one and all, unwilling to fully take responsibility.

When Yoella spies on her daughter through their window, she sees “books everywhere, even in the kitchen”.

Blum’s book has books everywhere too, Yoella is always talking about books she has read, about women and families, books that her readers may well have read too.

This adds to the intimacy of the novel, the feeling that Yoella is right there, telling you her story, revealing and hiding at the same time, the spectator.

And I am sure that How to Love Your Daughter will be one of those books that is talked about in the same way as those written by the authors of those books mentioned — Margaret Attwood, Jeanette Winterson, Anne Enright — a book that becomes part of you, and helps you understand the world around you.

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