The Greek island of Santorini, also known as Thera, is now a popular tourist destination. Some 3,600 years ago, however, it was the site of one of the worst natural disasters in human history, when a volcanic eruption virtually destroyed the island. The gigantic explosion led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization of nearby Crete and sent a layer of dust into the atmosphere whose traces can be found around the Earth. Historians believe that the resulting climate changes may have been responsible for the decline of empires in Egypt and even China. One still-controversial theory holds that the freaks of nature in the Exodus story, like the plagues of blood and insects and the parting of the Red Sea, are actually folk memories of ecological disasters caused by the Thera eruption.
When the acclaimed Israeli novelist Zeruya Shalev writes a book about a woman’s divorce and calls it Thera, then, she is not erring on the side of understatement. The death of a marriage, the metaphor implies, is no less traumatic the death of a civilization:
Unfathomable amounts of lava and ash leapt from the mountain that turned into a gaping maw, burying a wondrously developed ancient culture, leaving in its wake a crescent of smoking cliffs, a forlorn, craggy smile in the heart of the sea, and a desperate yearning for the sun, which would not show its face for many long years.
And the attempt to begin a new, post-divorce life is as perilous and tentative as the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Canaan:
... forced to cope with the disintegration of the frameworks, with the spreading violence, with the thousands of displaced people wandering over land and sea in search of a new home.
The voice we hear in these lurid, spiraling sentences belongs to Ella Miller, the thirty-six-year-old woman whose psychic death and rebirth form the plot of Thera. Even in brief quotation, it is clear that Ella is a domineering narrator: her paragraph-long sentences plunge us into the center of her consciousness and keep us there, often uncomfortably. But to mock these narrative arias as self-indulgent, even purple, would be too easy. Shalev’s style (as rendered, utterly convincingly, by the translators H. Sacks and Mitch Greenberg) is excessive because Ella is excessive, and the only way to understand her is to submit to her. This is not easy, because she is in many ways an unlikable character—needy, impulsive, self-destructive. Yet Shalev brings us so close to her emotional center that judgment is overwhelmed by sympathy. There really is something volcanic about Ella’s suffering, something epic about her superficially ordinary story.
For what could be more ordinary, in a modern middle-class society, than divorce? Ella lives in Jerusalem, but she and her circle of secular professionals could just as easily be in Tel Aviv, or San Francisco. When she decides to leave her husband, Amnon, after years of coldness and mutual recrimination, she takes comfort in the banality of the step. “Times have changed,” she tells her father, a stern and pompous professor. “Today people don’t make such a fuss over divorce, I know lots of children of divorced parents and nothing happened to them, they have a father and a mother and they learn to cope with life.”
Yet it is precisely the effect of the divorce on her own son, six-year-old Gili, that Ella most fears. The very first sentence of Thera has Gili shouting, “I’m dead … I’m totally dead, dead forever,” into his mother’s face, a childishly provocative way of expressing his grief. And Ella’s father sends her into a panic when he warns that “the child will not be able to cope with the situation, he won’t survive, he’ll be annihilated.” Since Ella is an archeologist—specializing, of course, in the Thera eruption—her thoughts run automatically to classical world-historical metaphors. To her, it sounds as if her father is “summing up the fate of … the Hittites, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Akkadians, entire empires vanished from the world, but we’re talking about a little child … who has difficulty tying his shoelaces.”
Freud compared the human psyche to an archeological site where time does not exist, where the oldest layers exist simultaneously with the newest. Shalev writes about character and emotion in a thoroughly psychoanalytic spirit. Indeed, one of the surprising features of this Israeli novel is the way Shalev deliberately minimizes the importance of politics to the happiness or unhappiness of individuals. American Jews tend to talk about Israeli life mainly in the context of political crisis, and symptoms of that crisis do appear in the novel—it was published in Hebrew in 2005, with memories of the second intifada still fresh. We hear about the security guard at Gili’s school, and Oded’s reluctance to take his children to public places. “I’m finished with this city, it’s a city of masochists,” says one minor character, to which another replies, “This whole country is a country of masochists.”
But the suffering that Ella endures has nothing to do with “the situation,” and if she is a masochist, it is her parents who are to blame, not her country. Ella’s childhood, we learn, was poisoned by the fighting between her overbearing father and her submissive mother. (She even had a tragic teenage romance with a boy who died young—an echo of Joyce’s The Dead, and an example of Shalev’s tendency to gild the emotional lily.) Like all of us, a psychologist might say, she is urgently in need, but has no idea what it is she needs.
It makes only too much sense, then, that she should try to escape from her post-divorce depression by falling in love with a psychologist, Oded Sheffer, who is the father of one of Gili’s schoolmates. Oded is in the process of divorcing his wife Michal, a neurotic, possessive invalid, and he and Ella cling to each other like survivors of a shipwreck. When they go to bed for the first time, it is not clear whether Ella is having an orgasm or a therapeutic “breakthrough”:
“Don’t be shy,” he whispers, “I want to hear you, I’ve already told you, words are important to me, and I hear myself speaking as I’ve never spoken before, in a voice that is not my voice, telling the story of a body about to be returned to the earth, a deceptive body whose growth was arrested, wizened before it ever ripened … it seems that I can hear the peel of my ancient loneliness splitting, the protective barrier … how scary it is to part from loneliness, how loud, its voice carrying from one end of the earth to the other.”
How can Ella be a mother when she is still fundamentally a child? This is the novel’s central problem, and Shalev is at her best analyzing Ella’s guilty love for the vulnerable Gili. Shalev writes with terrific accuracy and empathy about the life of children—how they communicate despite their inarticulateness, how they overcome helplessness or resign themselves to it. No one who has a child, or remembers being one, could read her description of Gili’s first night in his new, post-divorce home without being moved by his fear, anger, and bravery. When he sees his new room, he crows, “ ‘Mommy, the room’s huge,’ he spreads out his arms, ‘it’s much bigger than my old room’ ”—but Ella knows it is actually smaller, that this is Gili’s attempt to master his loss.
Ella’s divorce brings so much grief to her, to Gili and Amnon, and eventually even to Oded and his family, that it is impossible to say whether it was worth it. Like death or natural disaster, Shalev seems to say, divorce is an absolute rupture; the new life is not better or worse than the old, because it is too different. There is a glimmer of hope, in the last pages of Thera, that Ella and Oded will be able to create a new, more resilient family, but Shalev leaves their future in doubt. “All is not lost, not yet,” Ella pleads; and Shalev suggests that, in human life, that is usually the best we can hope for.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.