Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
‘Waking Lions’ by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a daring, genre-defying literary creation. Even if I knew the Hebrew equivalent to the term noir (as in the genre), I’d hesitate to apply it to this remarkable novel, so layered it is with meanings, perspectives and insights.
Gundar-Goshen , the author of ‘One Night, Markovitch’, which won the Sapir Prize for best debut and is to be also published in English by Pushkin Press, holds an MA in Clinical Psychology. Unsurprisingly, she is well capable of weaving a deft tale about the side of our own minds which we often, knowingly or otherwise, hide from ourselves.
Dr Eitan Green is a 40 year old neurosurgeon working at the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel’s fourth-largest city, lying on the edge of the Negev desert. He is dedicated, smart and defiantly honest, so much so that he threw away a high-flying career in Tel Aviv for refusing to be embroiled in a corruption scandal involving his scientific mentor, the eminent Prof. Zakai.
As a result, he lives like many other medical professionals toiling way in smaller clinics, working hard under severe stress and yet managing to have a warm family life with his wife Liat, a local police inspector, and their two young children.
One night, as Eitan drives back from work, the fabric of his life is brutally torn asunder – by none other himself. He runs over a man, an illegal Eritrean immigrant walking along the desert road. He is scared and confused and, seeing the stricken man is dying, runs away from him, without telling anyone about the tragedy.
For Eitan, it’s the beginning of a nightmare. There’s his incredulity at this totally out-of-character behaviour, there’s his rending guilt for failing to come clean about the accident with Liat, with whom he has a close, satisfying relationship. There’s the shame of clinging to the semblance of a normal life, as compassionate doctor, loving husband and dedicated father, after he has killed a man. And, suddenly, there’s Sirkit, the beautiful, enigmatic Eritrean wife of the man he has all but murdered, who comes to his house unannounced. Her epiphany has something of the magical, though it is only the prosaic consequence of the fact that Eitan misplaced his wallet on the accident site.
For Eitan, Sirkit’s appearance is the start of an even more harrowing nightmare. For she is bent on retribution for the death of Asum, her husband. Meeting her again the following day, Eitan gives her money, which she hadn’t actually asked for. She will take it, and then ask for something more. Something startling and incredibly onerous, which Eitan has no alternative but to concede, putting his career, his very existence and his family life on the line.
Sirkit’s astounding demand is by no means the last of the surprises that Gundar-Goshen springs on his characters, and the reader. Yet it would be reductive to describe ‘Waking Lions’ in terms of its plot only, however gripping it is. What I found seductive about this novel is the skill, the care and even the passion with which Gundar-Goshen crafts her characters. Each of them, however small a part he or she may play in the novel, is painstakingly rendered. Each is an original, of each we come to know those personality quirks and small details that make a character intensely real.
It is no mean feat, for the cast in ‘Waking Lions’, besides Sirkit, Eitan and his family of three (not to mention the shadow of his dead brother), includes a suspicious kibbutz owner, a Bedouin family – people who are only grudgingly accepted by the rest of Israeli society, and never on equal terms – and a forlorn group of Eritrean and Sudanese illegal immigrants, living even further away from the centre of ordinary life than Bedouins.
It is one of the novel’s, and of its excellent translation by Sondra Silverston, main achievements that all of its characters, with their different lives and customs and aspirations, are so well rendered. Such depth of perspective is occasionally mesmerising, as Gundar-Goshen, besides making the reader see the world from her characters’ eyes, adds her own authorial insight, as an extra layer of perception which, though fascinating, occasionally does slow the pace down.
But, as I wrote at the outset, what I admire about ‘Waking Lions’ is its genre-defying energy. To label it as a thriller rather than anything else, and to assess it by the standards of contemporary Western thriller writing, would be misleading. ‘Waking Lions’ has the magical power to take us to a different, fascinating place, both geographically and psychologically, and for this alone it’s a stunning novel. That it is also a thrilling narrative, with a well-timed series of dramatic twists, only adds to the reader’s pleasure, and is further proof of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s ability as an author, one whose novels I hope to read again very soon.