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Husband and Wife


Husband and Wife

Zeruya Shalev, translated by Dalya Bilu

It has been more than 25 years since Na'ama and Udigi met, 25 years
of passion, indifference, guilt, indulgence, anger, apathy, lust,
love, and co-dependence, 25 years for their relationship to
blossom, wilt and rot. When Udigi awakens one morning, unable to
move his legs, it's the ultimate physical manifestation of a
problem that has been brewing for years. Na'ama can no longer look
the other way, smile through her tears and insist that her broken
family is one crack away from perfection. Things fall apart.

But as Na'ama also slowly learns that this is not necessarily a bad
thing. In Zeruya Shalev's lyrical novel HUSBAND AND WIFE, the
author addresses so many issues --- the questionable piety of the
saint/martyr, the tyranny of love, the balance of sin. Sure, it's
all presented under the guise of a marriage badly in need of
counseling, but Na'ama and Udigi's woes speak to so much more than
typical family dysfunction. When a Tibetan healer asks Na'ama what
she enjoys, the glib narrator is at a loss. "It has been so long,"
she thinks, since she has even considered her feelings, always
pushing Udigi and daughter Noga ahead of her own concerns in a
misguided attempt at conciliation. In living through her husband
and child (and yet constantly second-guessing their decisions),
Na'ama has lost track of herself.

Shalev's prose, somewhere between poetry and prophecy, flows like a
gurgling country brook, free of stops and starts, settling into an
almost rhythmic beat. This can be difficult, at times, to follow.
The verse-like format seems at first too troublesome to carry on
for an entire book –-- perhaps a short-story format would
have been better? But as the book reaches its climax, Shalev, too,
hits her stride. She offers such incredible insight into the human
condition that it becomes difficult to put down the book. While her
early characterization of Udigi seems to paint him as the bad guy,
we come to realize that Na'ama has her own shortcomings. By seeing
everything through her eyes, the reader is able to travel the same
path to knowledge as Na'ama. Experiencing her foibles and falls may
be grinding, but it's also honest. No one gets it right the first
time…or the second, or third.

Eavesdropping on the interaction between these two characters, the
trail guide and erstwhile doctoral candidate Udi and the unwed
mothers' advocate Na'ama, feels so real. Shalev drops metaphorical
hints along the trail, using everything from breast feeding to
guava trees to model apartments to make her point. Those versed in
Biblical history will find many cleverly constructed parallels.
Na'ama spends her days and nights striving for perfection, and when
she fails, she gives in completely. There is only black and white
for her, a once-beautiful woman approaching middle age with a
daughter she can't relate to and a husband who has effectively cut
her off from the outside world. As Na'ama begins to see, in bits
and pieces, the world's palette of other colors, the story takes

What rings true most of all in Shalev's second novel is her
decision to ultimately let us decide for ourselves. Who is more to
blame for Udigi and Na'ama's breakup? Who was the culprit in
Na'ama's parents' divorce? Who hurts Noga more? How do you learn to
let go? Just as in life, there are no universal truths. One reading
may send you to the right (Udi's relentless selfishness ruined
things from the start), the next reading to the left (Na'ama is too
apt to stew in guilt instead of confronting her problems). It's
incredibly refreshing to draw the conclusions on our own.

Reviewed by Toni Fitzgerald ( on January 22, 2011

Husband and Wife
Zeruya Shalev, translated by Dalya Bilu

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 311 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 080211718X
  • ISBN-13: 9780802117182