Yesterday, the English translation of The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi hit shelves. The book was first published in Hebrew in 2019, and the new translation was done by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann. This historical fiction novel, set primarily in Israel, follows a mother and daughter and their difficult relationship, their tumultuous lives, and the generational trauma that has been passed down. It’s an emotional and and challenging novel, but also one of hope and healing.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for providing me with an ARC of this book!
In the mid-1970s, we meet Eliya as her marriage falls apart in Paris. Devastated, she returns to her parents’ home in Tel Aviv, where her mental health deteriorates until she finally seeks help through therapy. In Israel, readers learn about her mother, Lily, and the difficult life she had as an orphan with no known family. The two women have faced many traumas and continue to have a tense relationship with each other; Eliya’s dad, Shaul, is also caught up in the years of sadness. But their generational trauma may only be curable by finding its source: Who is Lily’s birth mother, and can she hold the key to freeing this lifetime of pain?
The Woman Beyond the Sea is one of the most difficult books I’ve read, diving into tough themes that impact a range of characters. It begins with Eliya, a young woman in a toxic relationship. It’s an abusive marriage that ends when her no-good husband, Ari, has an affair and unceremoniously leaves Eliya. She returns home to Israel to live with her parents, but her depression leaves her feeling suicidal. The first cracks of light emerge when she begins therapy. The book then explores her mother Lily’s past and the extensive traumas the led to her being such a cold woman in her adulthood. From life in an orphanage to the loss of her firstborn child, Lily’s poor emotional health has been longer-lasting and more pervasive, negatively impacting her relationships both with her husband and her daughter. If all of that trauma sounds like a lot, know that there’s even more I’m not mentioning.
On the one hand, this novel can feel excessively sad. How many horrors must one family face? For some readers, it may be too much. But even so, I liked that the author chose to explore such traumas as she did. It feels like she’s painting a portrait of generational trauma, and of the ways one person’s pain can in turn be inflicted on those around them. Instead of simply wallowing in misery, The Woman Beyond the Sea is about bringing those traumas into the light and openly addressing them. It’s about healing through therapy and opening the lines of communication.
One wonderful aspect of this healing process is seeing Eliya and Lily slowly but surely rebuild their relationship. Despite the chasm between them, they eventually realize the love they share and how the only way to heal is to support each other. This mother-daughter relationship starts in a terrible place, but I loved seeing them grow stronger together.
I also appreciated the characters of Shaul and Eldad. Shaul, in particular, I felt bad for most of the time. His wife Lily is awful to him and isolates him, and yet he never gives up on her. He may be too kind for his own good, but I felt for him and wished his family situation could improve. Eldad has his own traumas, but he proves to be a solid support for Eliya after her divorce.
There is a mystery surrounding Lily’s mother, the titular woman beyond the sea. Whoever she is, and whatever her reason was for giving up her day-old baby, this woman seems to be an important link in the family tree. She’s another part of the generational trauma, but perhaps by finding her, all three generations of women can find inner peace.
Most of this novel is set in Israel, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I haven’t read much fiction set in Israel, and I loved getting to know this country and its two largest cities. The story also gives a peek into the culture and the people, as well as its recent history of wars and internal conflicts. Religion is another major theme. Lily was brought up in a Christian convent, but later learned she was born to a Jewish mother. Shaul’s family is Jewish, too, and it was interesting learning about both sides of the family in terms of culture and religion.
The Woman Beyond the Sea is translated from Hebrew, and the translation was wonderfully done. It flows well, and although the chapters vary widely in length, the pacing is generally good throughout the novel. It can get repetitive and over-indulgent, but generally I liked the narrative. The open-ended final chapter leaves the story up for interpretation. For me, it felt like the right way to close a book about the cyclical nature of family relationships, trauma, and healing.
The Woman Beyond the Sea is a heavy read, and you may want to review the extensive content warnings before diving in. It’s about mental health, trauma, fraught relationships, and how pain is passed down from one generation to the next. Yet even with all its dark themes, there is also an ember of healing woven in, too. Through therapy, open communication, and seeking out healthy coping mechanisms and relationships, the characters find themselves on the precipice of a new, happier stage of life.
I am curious to read Sarit Yishai-Levi’s previous book, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, as well as watch its Netflix series adaptation. The Woman Beyond the Sea also reportedly has a Netflix adaptation; once that is available, I’ll watch it too!
CWs: Toxic and abusive relationships; cheating; loss of infant; depression; self-harm; suicidal thoughts and attempts; sexual assault and rape; PTSD
Get the Book
You can buy The Woman Beyond the Sea here – it’s available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
|The Woman Beyond the Sea by Sarit Yishai-Levi|
|Number of Pages||416|
|Format I Read||ebook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||March 21, 2023|
A mesmerizing novel about three generations of women who have lost each other—and the quest to weave them back into a family.
An immersive historical tale spanning the life stories of three women, The Woman Beyond the Sea traces the paths of a daughter, mother, and grandmother who lead entirely separate lives, until finally their stories and their hearts are joined together.
Eliya thinks that she’s finally found true love and passion with her charismatic and demanding husband, an aspiring novelist—until he ends their relationship in a Paris café, spurring her suicide attempt. Seeking to heal herself, Eliya is compelled to piece together the jagged shards of her life and history.
Eliya’s heart-wrenching journey leads her to a profound and unexpected love, renewed family ties, and a reconciliation with her orphaned mother, Lily. Together, the two women embark on a quest to discover the truth about themselves and Lily’s own origins…and the unknown woman who set their stories in motion one Christmas Eve.
About the Author
Sarit Yishai-Levi is a renowned Israeli journalist and author. In 2016 she published her first book, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. It immediately became a bestseller and garnered critical acclaim. The book sold more than three hundred thousand copies in Israel, was translated into ten languages, and was adapted into a TV series that won the Israeli TV award for best drama series. It also won the Publishers Association’s Gold, Platinum, and Diamond prizes; the Steimatzky Prize for bestselling book of the year in Israel; and the WIZO France Prize for best book translated into French.
Yishai-Levi’s second book, The Woman Beyond the Sea, was published in 2019. It won the Publishers Association’s Gold and Platinum prizes and was adapted for television by Netflix.
Yishai-Levi was born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic family that has lived in the city for eight generations. She’s been living with her family in Tel Aviv since 1970.
More Books by Sarit Yishai-Levi
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