HOW TO LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER, by Hila Blum. Translated by Daniella Zamir.
A woman travels thousands of miles to spy on a family at the start of “How to Love Your Daughter,” by Hila Blum. Alone on a dark road, Yoella watches the family through their lighted windows. Inside are her daughter Leah and her two granddaughters, but they don’t know she’s out: Yoella hasn’t seen Leah in years and has never met her grandchildren.
For six years, Leah made sporadic calls to her mother from all over the world, “from Dharamsala, Bangalore, Hanoi, Chiang Mai. Everything is fine, she’s fine.” She climbs mountains, sleeps in forests, visits remote villages. Except Leah actually lived in the Netherlands all that time, with the husband and daughters she never once mentioned to her mother, and her nomadic life was a fabrication. Yoella and her husband “are the parents of a missing person, but one that no one around us can understand, not even us.”
To understand the mystery of Leah’s disappearance, Yoella casts a ruthless gaze back over her past. She puts herself on trial as a mother, calling witnesses, examining the evidence, looking for a crime. Her tone is unsparing, with the reader in the position of judge. But as it becomes clear that Yoella was a loving, kind, capable mother, the reader becomes something closer to a co-accused: If she’s guilty of harm, then maybe we are too.
“How to Love Your Daughter” is Hila Blum’s second novel and her American debut, in a brisk, lively translation from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir, and it is a stone-cold masterpiece of psychological tension. Often its sentences are deceptively clear, as transparent and menacing as a swarm of jellyfish. Elsewhere, the tone veers into humor, even silliness. What connects the two disparate registers, and everyone in between, is an unmistakable authenticity: Every observation, gesture and piece of dialogue rings true.
In Blum’s prose, the often invisible tasks of caregiving are charged with mystery and foreshadowing. Reluctant to let her teenage daughter ride the bus alone from their home in Jerusalem to her dance rehearsals, Yoella waits outside in the cold Leah parking lot. “When she comes out of the building two hours later, her thin silhouette flashes on and off in the foggy headlights of passing cars, and when I start the engine and turn on the lights, she quickens her pace, and with every step she takes to me her body drains with dance.”
Leah is animated on the page, appearing as a baby, toddler, child and teenager as the short sections of the novel cycle through time. Yoella loves her daughter with all her heart. She brings Leah on trips to Europe, just the two of them: “In Rome, at lunch, I let her drink my cocktail and then I had two more myself, and we talked non-stop and roared with laughter, people turned to look.”
When Leah begins to worry about her appearance, Yoella teases her, saying, “It’s a lost cause. Never mind your birthmark and your pores, but your nose? I don’t see a solution to that.” Throughout the novel, the bond between mother and daughter gathers strength, so that the loss of Yoella becomes almost unbearable. What will she do next, now that she knows her daughter’s whereabouts?
While “How to Love Your Daughter” races toward reckoning, its plots and revelations are dramatic enough to be entirely satisfying. Its final pages had me holding my breath, desperate to find out if Yoella would be condemned to a life without her daughter, or if she would be forgiven.
Flynn Berry is the author of “Northern Spy,” “A Double Life” and “Under the Harrow.”
HOW TO LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER | By Hila Blum | Translated by Daniella Zamir | 272 pp. | Riverhead Books | $27