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Book Review: ‘How to Love Your Daughter,’ by Hila Blum

This is an illustration of the face of a person who appears to be a woman wearing glasses that show the reflection of three human figures in the lenses. The drawing is done in shades of gray with the exception of a few spots of yellow.
Credit...Anuj Shrestha

HOW TO LOVE YOUR DAUGHTER, by Hila Blum. Translated by Daniella Zamir.

A woman travels for 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 lit windows. Inside are her daughter Leah and her two granddaughters, but they don’t know she is outside: Yoella hasn’t seen Leah in years and has never met her granddaughters.

For six years, Leah has made sporadic calls to her mother from around the world, “from Dharamsala, Bangalore, Hanoi, Chiang Mai. Everything’s fine, she’s fine.” She is trekking up mountains, sleeping in forests, visiting distant villages. Except Leah has actually been living in the Netherlands all that time, with the husband and daughters she has 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 the kind no one around us can understand, not even us.”

To understand the mystery of Leah’s disappearance, Yoella casts a merciless gaze back over her past. She puts herself on trial as a mother, summoning witnesses, poring over the evidence, searching for a crime. Her tone is unsparing, with the reader in the position of a judge. But as it becomes clear that Yoella has been an affectionate, kind, capable mother, the reader becomes something closer to a co-accused: If she is guilty of causing damage, then maybe we are too.

“How to Love Your Daughter” is Hila Blum’s second novel and her U.S. debut, in a lively, vivid translation from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir, and it is a stone-cold masterwork of psychological tension. Often its sentences are deceptively clear, as transparent and menacing as a swarm of jellyfish. Elsewhere, the tone swerves into humor, even goofiness. What links the two disparate registers, and all those in between, is an unerring authenticity: Every observation, gesture and piece of dialogue rings true.

In Blum’s prose, the often invisible chores of caregiving are loaded with mystery and portent. 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 parking lot for Leah. “When she exits the building two hours later, her thin silhouette switches on and off in the misty headlights of passing cars, and when I start the engine and flash the lights, she picks up her pace, and with each step she takes toward me her body drains of dance.”

Leah is vibrant on the page, appearing as an infant, a toddler, a child and a teenager as the novel’s short sections cycle through time. Yoella loves her daughter wholeheartedly. She brings Leah on trips to Europe, just the two of them: “In Rome, at lunch, I let her have a sip of my cocktail and then had another two myself, and we talked nonstop and roared with laughter, people turning to stare.”

When Leah begins to worry over 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 force, so Yoella’s loss becomes almost unbearable. What will she do next, now that she knows her daughter’s whereabouts?

As “How to Love Your Daughter” races toward a reckoning, its intrigues and revelations are dramatic enough to be wholly satisfying. Its final pages had me holding my breath, desperate to find out if Yoella will be condemned to a life without her daughter, or if she will be pardoned.

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

Posted on 21 Jul 2023 11:00 link