Title: The Woman Beyond the Sea
Author: Sarit Yishai-Levi
Translated by: Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann
Publisher: Amazon Crossing
Publication date: March 21, 2023 (originally published in Hebrew in 2019)
Print length: 413 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
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.
Content warning: Suicide, rape, childhood neglect and abandonment
Sarit Yishai-Levi is the author of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, an immersive novel about a Sephardic family in 20th century Israel, which has been adapted into an addictive Netflix series (and just when are we getting season 3???).
In her new novel, The Woman Beyond the Sea, we open in the 1970s with Eliya, a woman in her mid-20s who has been used and then dumped by her self-centered husband. Eliya completely falls apart, and her parents Shaul and Lily are at a loss about how to help her.
Lily herself is a strange and troubled woman. Abandoned at a convent as a newborn, she was raised by nuns with no knowledge of her past, no family and no connections. After running away from the convent as a teen, she bounces from one temporary living arrangement to another until she finally meets Shaul, a man who adores her and offers her a future that she never thought she’d have. But Lily, raised without love or family, doesn’t know how to trust or give love, and after experiencing a particularly harsh tragedy, is unable to raise Eliya with a mother’s love.
The cycle of strangled feelings and alienation continue until Eliya is able, after enduring her own psychological crises, to bridge the distance between herself and her mother. After great struggle, Eliya and Lily finally join together to understand Lily’s past and to search for the answers that have always been missing.
The Woman Beyond the Sea is quite intense emotionally, and the two women, Eliya and Lily, are not kind to themselves or to each other. It’s disturbing to see how much hurt they carry internally and the ways they hurt one another.
My reactions to this book are mixed. I loved the setting and the time period, loved seeing Tel Aviv through the characters’ experiences, loved the elements of culture that permeate the characters’ lives.
I didn’t love the writing style — although I wonder if some of this is a translation issue. Originally published in Hebrew, there are phrases and expressions that feel clunky or awkward here in English — but I know just enough Hebrew to pick up occasional moments where certain colloquial expressions in the original language might have felt more natural. (Sadly, I definitely do not have enough Hebrew to read an entire novel!)
Beyond the translation issues, the storytelling itself is not in a style that particularly works for me. Especially in the first half, chapters are painfully long (30 – 60 pages), and the narrative jumps chronologically within a character’s memories — so a character remembering her early married life will interrupt these thoughts to remember something from her school days, and then perhaps interrupt yet again for an earlier memory before coming back to the original set of thoughts. It’s confusing and often hard to follow, and kept me from feeling truly connected to the characters until much later in the book.
There’s a terrific twist and big reveal late in the book that really redeemed the reading experience for me and pulled me in completely. Truly fascinating, although I can’t say a single thing about it without divulging things better not known in advance.
Still, even this high point in the book is offset by some unforgivably cruel shaming and harsh judgments about actions taken to survive and situations outside of a character’s control. Again, I don’t want to reveal details, but I was really angered by the words used by certain characters and found their reactions totally unacceptable and awful.
Overall, there’s a compelling story at the heart of The Woman Beyond the Sea and I always wanted to know more. And yet, the problematic elements and weirdly structured storytelling left me frustrated too often to rate this book higher than 3.5 stars.
A note on content warnings: I don’t typically include these, but felt the topics of suicide and rape need to be called out in advance, for readers who are triggered by or prefer to avoid these topics.