For everything there is a reason, and for 50-year-old Yoel Ravid, the protagonist of Amos Oz's new novel, "To Know a Woman" (his 12th book to be translated into English from the Hebrew), the season is autumnal and one of mourning. Ravid, a dedicated operative of the Israeli secret service, returns home from an undercover assignment in Helsinki to discover that Ivria, his wife of many years, has died in a freak electrical accident. As a result, Yoel "dies" in large measure to himself.
Ivria, it seems, was everything to him, emotionally a near-identical twin and the mainstay of his otherwise restrained covert existence, his only love and, we learn "even when love had gone and given way in the course of the years, successively, or by turns, to mutual pity, friendship, pain" there were still "bursts of sensual flowering, bitterness, jealousy and rage, and again Indian summers flickering with sparks of sexual abandon, then vindictiveness and hatred and compassion again, a tissue of interwoven, alternating, ever-changing emotions, swallowed up in strange compounds and unexpected combinations, like cocktails mixed by a lunatic barman. . . ."
Yoel sees his past together with the late Ivria in biblical terms, as if from the Book of Genesis: "And the man knew his woman." For Yoel, "the bond between them was knowledge." So at the news of her death, his life seems to wither away. And so together with his own mother and his mother-in-law who have moved in with him and his adolescent daughter Netta, a mild epileptic whom he attempts to shelter from the tremors of the world outside their little suburb of Tel Aviv, Yoel withdraws into his widower-hood, resigning from the secret service and throwing himself into the daily round of household chores and gardening. He becomes a sleepwalker, moving through the diurnal/nocturnal cycle of house repairs, reading, gardening, and television and more television, retreating into a sort of anomic funk from which only an occasional fishing trip with his rental agent or, eventually, an on-again-off-again liaison with one of his next-door neighbors (an American woman who, along with her slightly perverse brother, has emigrated from Detroit) can rouse him.