Fiction

Shattered Trust

Reviewed by Judy Goldman
Sunday, May 29, 2005

HER BODY KNOWS: Two Novellas

By David Grossman

Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

Farrar Straus Giroux. 264 pp. $25

Writers have tics. David Grossman's pet word is torn , which he uses frequently in "Frenzy," the first of two novellas collected in Her Body Knows . No wonder. His characters are cut adrift from one another, frantic to work their way back.

In "Frenzy," a husband isolates himself from his wife by accusing her of having an affair. Then he insinuates himself into the middle of that affair by imagining its every concrete detail, even buying her a car so that she will have more freedom to come and go as she wishes. Her lover "does not want to have to waste any time later undressing -- time is short -- so that while she navigates the car through the braids of tiny streets connecting this house to that one, he already begins to undress in the bedroom, or perhaps by the door, taking off his baggy brown corduroys and large faded shirt." Over and over the wife denies her husband's accusations, and in fact, his evidence is thin. But the reader gets swept up in his paranoia, scrutinizing clues along with him as he desperately seeks to prove her guilt.

She is so skilled at keeping her fling a secret, he believes, that she infuses her hair with the smell of chlorine and brings home a wet bathing cap and towel just to show she spends the hour away every day at the swimming pool.

In the second of the novellas, "Her Body Knows," an embittered 35-year-old daughter has detached herself from her self-absorbed, New Age mother, who is in the final stages of cancer. The daughter returns home after a two-year absence to read aloud the novel she has written about the dying woman's long-ago flirtation with a teenage boy.

Alienation resonates through these two novellas, in which storytellers relate their versions of the truth to captive audiences. The anguished main characters are eager to prove themselves right. In "Frenzy," the wife leaves every year for a four-day vacation alone. Although her husband has never followed her, this year he persuades his sister-in-law to take him on a long drive without revealing his purpose or their destination, and while they make their way to his wife's cabin in the desert, he takes advantage of the long hours in the car to offer increasingly tenuous proof of his wife's betrayal.

In "Her Body Knows," the daughter painfully reads page after page about her mother's erotic obsession with the teenage boy and the intense private yoga instruction she gave him, page after page about her mother's failure to care for her: "Your insistence on treating her only with homeopathic medicine, even when she had strep throat, and the horrible comment made by the doctor at the ER."

Grossman is a talented writer -- elegant, even luxurious. A resident of Jerusalem and the author of six novels, as well as three nonfiction books about the Middle East, he's won the Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, the Israeli Book Publishers' Association Prize for best novel and the Jerusalem Writer's House Prize for First Work. His writing is achingly sensual, the humor sly. He takes his time, disconnecting characters' relationships and then reconnecting small parts, bit by bit. Though the pacing might test a reader's patience, the language is always lush and generous. I have a high tolerance for languor, but there will be readers for whom the peregrination here is too much. Condensing some of the descriptive passages might have heightened the momentum and produced more gripping narratives. That said, Grossman's new book should win him a wider audience in the United States, particularly among readers who appreciate flawless prose and an unsentimental take on family intimacy. ยท

Judy Goldman is the author of two books of poetry and two novels, most recently "Early Leaving."


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