by Zeruya Shalev,
translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverton
Other Press, 2019
400 Pages, $17.99
Review by Giselle Defares

What is pain? Pain builds a prison around a person, entrapping them in their own excruciating world. In Zeruya Shalev’s novel Pain (Other Press, 2019), the school principal Iris sees it in her hallucinatory state, as “existing totally in that burning moment, in the dawning recognition of the cataclysm.”

Pain has layers, and Shalev offers long sentences filled with inner conflict and doubt. From the opening sentence, the reader dives deeper into her mental and physical state: “Here it is, back again, and although she’s been expecting it for years, she is surprised. Back again as if it never let go, as if she didn’t live a day without it, a month without it, a year; after all, exactly ten years have passed since then.”

The language to describe pain doesn’t always fully encompass the reality-defining pain for the one who is suffering. Essayist Elaine Scarry laments the limits of language in her 1985 volume The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language…” However, Shalev’s whirling stream of consciousness surrounding her pain makes it clear for the reader that her pain is twofold.

First the pain. Ten years after the terrorist attack in Israel, Iris is once again suffering but now it’s a kind of phantom pain. It’s her nerves that make her life miserable while she’s long healed from the injuries. Added to it is the pain which comes in the form of her former love, Eitan. Their love came long before the pain, thirty years to be exact. She has never completely recovered from the relationship they started while she was seventeen. Now she’s married with two children and the principal of a strict Jerusalem school. It’s as if the past has come back to haunt her again. As if the past contains an illusion that throws a shadow on the present.

Virginia Woolf writes in On Being Ill,  when it comes to pain, “ we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy…that would be intolerable.” Shalev sucks you in with the conflicting and claustrophobic thoughts that are constantly in Iris’ head. Thus the reader also becomes stuck in the depths of Iris’ mind; and in her pain.

Her pain is also reflected when she sees her husband Mickey and her son and daughter. The accident made her bedridden and she lay in bed for weeks, months, ashamed to be depending on her family. The pain was one a burden, having to be cared for by her loved ones was a harder blow. She pushed her family away trying not to be a burden, and she now feels the distance in the relationship with her children. Her son is about to fulfill his military service while her daughter is independent and works in a bar.

Shalev’s sentences flow. Shaky, fast, sometimes almost hyperbolic. The pain comes in waves “like labor pains, they come every minute or two and wrap themselves around her body, sawing through her pelvic cage bone after bone.”  Her chance meeting with Eitan is almost like an emotional wound that is reopened, a pain that is even more intense than the physical pain of the terrorist attack. She knows that their love will never last, and family disappointment and complications will follow. But she lets her emotions swirl, and Iris only feels a modicum of guilt.

It’s not her forgotten love that ultimately brings her closer to herself. Iris’ daughter seems to be under the spell of a charismatic guru, and she immediately realizes that she herself is the only one who can save her. The mother-daughter relationship is extremely fragile and fraught. A scent, a gesture, a word can be enough to inspire aversion. It is never clear why — in Shalev’s world it is a fact. And once again it is physical pain (she stumbles during her rescue mission) that changes the situation: her daughter sees that her mother needs her.

The questions that come back in Pain: how do people forgive each other? Do you forgive the suicide bomber who destroyed your body? Do you forgive your spouse who is not open to your emotions? As Iris thinks to herself “…something about our use of words has gone awry lately, we use them to hide instead of to reveal…We have betrayed our words and now they are punishing us.” That being said, do people even want to forgive each other? After all, the condition for forgiveness is the recognition of the pain that is being done not only to us, but also to the other.

To the person who is in pain there’s no other reality besides that pain. It’s the flow of Shalev’s language and the intense emotions that are dissected that make Pain a convincing novel on personal growth, interconnectedness, and that which is peculiar.