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Good and Bad Mothers

Challenging new fiction from Israel

Given the thriving motherhood industry — with books and mommy blogs featuring rigid philosophies of childcare and manuals on feeding, sleeping, and calming fussy babies — I wonder what the experts and bloggers would say about Orly Castel-Bloom’s novel Dolly City (Dalkey Archive, $13.95) and its bad mother. Armed with dubious credentials from the University of Katmandu, Dolly, a surgeon, uses her son’s body to orchestrate some of the most macabre and violent scenes in Israeli literature, deftly translated into English by Dalya Bilu. Dolly can’t help but cut him open over and over again. Like most new parents, she constantly second-guesses herself, and subjects her son to relentless and unnecessary operations to reassure herself that everything is in place. In one early scene, Dolly carves a map of the biblical Land of Israel on her son’s back but later updates her handiwork to reflect current borders. As her son grows, the lines shift and change; Dolly’s first lesson that some things are out of her control.

Dolly’s appetite for violence is exacerbated by the illness, decay and death that she perceives around her (and which inform the novel’s political subtext). Dolly can’t shake off a sense of doom, a feeling that something is fundamentally wrong. Convinced that this pervasive violence must — or eventually will — infect her son, she secludes him in her high-rise apartment. Dolly struggles with letting go — what parent doesn’t? — and the novel’s dystopian landscapes seem to corroborate her concerns, but a warped maternal protective instinct also motivates Dolly, which raises the question: is it any safer inside the home?

Ella Miller, the protagonist of Zeruya Shalev’s novel Thera (Toby Press, $24.95), is Dolly’s polar opposite, the kind of mother who makes sure that her child’s favorite food fills the fridge (schnitzel and chocolate milk) and rushes to pick him up from school on time. When the novel opens, Ella is recently separated from Amnon, her husband of 10 years, with whom she shares custody of their sixyear old son, Gilad (Gili). Amnon wants nothing of divorce, but Ella wants nothing more than to live life on her terms. Translators H. Sacks and Mitch Ginsburg capture Ella’s ambivalence with a fidelity that feels too literal at times; but it would be too easy, and misleading, to smooth out the grammar of her thoughts.

The novel takes its name from a massive volcanic eruption that buried an entire city, a site that Ella, a trained archeologist, has studied for years. The eruption may have precipitated, Ella theorizes, the ten Biblical plagues and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Throughout the novel, excavation serves as a metaphor for the psychological and emotional digging that each character engages to make sense, often futilely, of the homes that have been left behind. “Throughout, I fear that I am too late, for a site can be excavated only once, and I have acted rashly, hastily casting aside dirt of inestimable importance, without sieving, without documenting, rendering it impossible for any future excavator to verify or refute the date or their meaning, and neither can I, for the remains have been removed forever.” The challenges of rebuilding her life (with the soon-to-be-divorced father of one of Gili’s school friends) force Ella to confront her deeply ingrained expectations and needs, a process that requires her to accept responsibility for her part in the demise of her marriage.

Mistakes, any mother will tell you, are only natural, but Dolly City and Thera offer particularly unflinching portrayals of motherhood. Dolly and Ella are very different kinds of mothers, but what their stories have in common is a brutally honest examination of the layers of love and ruin over which we build — and rebuild — our personal and national homes. 

Adriana X. Jacobs received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.