Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: A Woman In Jerusalem by A.B. Yehoshua

Title: A Woman In Jerusalem
Author: A.B. Yehoshua
Publisher: Harcourt
Publication Date: August 14, 2006 (English translation; originally published in Hebrew in 2004)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

A woman in her forties is a victim of a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market. Her body lies nameless in a hospital morgue. She had apparently worked as a cleaning woman at a bakery, but there is no record of her employment. When a Jerusalem daily accuses the bakery of "gross negligence and inhumanity toward an employee," the bakery's owner, overwhelmed by guilt, entrusts the task of identifying and burying the victim to a human resources man. This man is at first reluctant to take on the job, but as the facts of the woman's life take shape-she was an engineer from the former Soviet Union, a non-Jew on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and, judging by an early photograph, beautiful-he yields to feelings of regret, atonement, and even love.

At once profoundly serious and highly entertaining, A. B. Yehoshua astonishes us with his masterly, often unexpected turns in the story and with his ability to get under the skin and into the soul of Israel today.

My Review:

This month's country selection for the Around The World in 12 Books Challenge is Israel.  Next month is Palestine, in an effort to give us challengers a chance to get to know both countries.  I found it a little difficult to find a fiction novel set in Israel that was both modern and not too Biblical (those are my preferences, not necessarily those of the other challengers), but A Woman In Jerusalem fit the bill.

This is not a novel to be read for simple plot-based entertainment.  Early on, I realized that the story is intended as a parable, an illustration of some deeper meaning or concept.  The journey of the human resources manager is not to be taken at face value, that much is obvious.  I think the first hint of that was the fact that none of the characters (except the titular Woman In Jerusalem) ever has their name revealed in the novel.  They all go by titles..."human resources manager", "office manager", "consul", etc.  From this, it's easy to glean that the events in the book are not meant to be reflective of them as individuals, but instead are supposed to convey larger concepts.

While I won't try to play it off like I know exactly what Yehoshua was trying to illustrate, my conjecture is that much of the text is meant to be a reflection on Israel and the mindset of its citizens in the present day.  I don't know enough about Israeli politics and government to get more specific than that, but certainly the human resources manager in the story is weighed down by heavy feelings of love, dedication, and remorse...all potentially reflective of a greater Israeli identity.

(I would love to hear what other readers of Yehoshua's work think of this interpretation?  Am I completely off my rocker here?)

Yehoshua's writing vacillates between the aforementioned seriousness and a lighter, more entertaining dialogue.  I appreciated that, because I think if the text felt heavy with meaning the entire time, I would have gone quickly down the road to a DNF.  However, I flew through this novel--it combines the allegorical elements with more humorous scenes fairly well.

A primary purpose of the Around the World challenge is to learn more about the culture of each country we "visit", and I think A Woman in Jerusalem was a perfect pick for that end.  I feel smarter for having read it, and I'd especially love the chance to discuss this book with anyone who has lived in, or even visited, Israel.  Though this is a pretty fast read, it's not necessarily "light", as you'll be using your noggin for sure.

Read any good parables lately, reader friends?


  1. This seems like a really good book, but I still don't want to read it! ;) I tend to dislike parables because that writing style leaves out the individual character development that is usually my favorite thing in a novel.

    1. Definitely a good point. The focus was much more on the message vs the characters involved.

  2. This sounds interesting and really different!

    I recently read/reviewed Aimee Bender's The Color Master, and a lot of those stories were parable-like, for sure. :)

    1. I remember seeing your review and being really intrigued! I haven't read a lot of novels/stories like this lately, so I will have to check it out.

  3. Your assessment makes a lot of sense for an international reader. For me, A Woman in Jerusalem was very much a novel of contrasts, whether stylistically (like the name thing, or even the question of who the main character is - Yulia or the HR manager?) or just the way that it portrayed Israeli society (with some of the rather gentle references to Israel's immigrant class).

    I'm not sure I agree with you though that this is a parable. It's got multiple layers, certainly, and Yehoshua definitely uses subtlety and dichotomies to get his point across, but generally speaking you get what you see. Maybe it has something to do with the perspective of the reader? Coming at it from an Israeli perspective, reading it in Hebrew... it's a wonderful, deep book, but I really can't see it as a parable.

    If you're still looking for modern Israeli fiction, I'd definitely recommend Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz - incredible short stories, even if the writing is a bit more blunt than Yehoshua's. And A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev - beautiful writing and a lovely story.

    1. I LOVE your comment because I have been especially curious about the reactions of readers who read it in the original Hebrew. So much can be tweaked in a translation (even unintentionally), and certainly reading it from an Israeli perspective changes the interpretation of the text as well.

      And thank you for the recommendations on other Israeli fiction...this is my first foray into that genre, so I appreciate the direction!

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