Brian Martin

Hostage to misfortune

Nordic noir is passé. Welcome to Israeli noir — in Waking Lions, by the clinical psychologist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Hostage to misfortune
Text settings

Waking Lions

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston

Pushkin Press, pp. 320, £

Nordic noir is passé. Now we have Israeli noir. Waking Lions is a mordant thriller written by a clinical psychologist who knows how the mind is tortured by deception, infidelity, obfuscation, suspicion and sex. Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon who, exhilaratedly driving his SUV at speed on the desert tracks outside Beersheba, runs down an Eritrean refugee. As he looks at the body with its cracked skull, he thinks that since ‘he can’t save this man, at least he’d try to save himself’.

From that point, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s omniscient narrator involves us in a web of lies, guilt, evasion, seduction and moral equivocation. The incident is registered officially as a hit-and-run case. Eitan’s wife, Liat, happens to be a senior police officer. This might have turned into an American-style minor thriller with predictable twists. Instead, it is a work of great subtlety which wrenches at the heart of both the family and the state, and makes for compulsive reading.

As befits Gundar-Goshen’s medical background, there is much understanding of anatomical detail in her writing. When Eitan inspects the body after the accident we are given a description of the gut ‘divided into the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum’: unfolded it extends to a length of eight metres. Her imagery is unrelenting; the reason for Eitan’s ‘smooth and glistening’ lie is ‘as clear as the carcinogenic sun’. But her writing is also suffused with Hebraic ritual: Eitan’s anger burned ‘like a Sabbath hotplate; you turn it on and you don’t turn it off for two days’.

The major theme, the corrosiveness of guilt — which by habituation leads to the destruction of the self and all close and professional relationships — is coupled with another topical one — of immigration, prejudice and the lure of apartheid within a state.

Eitan is held hostage by the slender, beautiful Eritrean wife of the man he has killed. What she demands from him in service to her fellow refugees compounds his lie and complicates his life. It is not until a further crucial event creates a balance of power between them that he is freed from his crushing obligation and his femme fatale.

At the end of this sophisticated, angst-filled thriller, Gundar-Goshen writes of Eitan’s story: ‘It had been fascinating and seductive, and had aroused him to the depth of his soul the way such dark stories do.’ It does just the same for the reader — before, life returns to the ordinary: ‘The planet Earth is back in its orbit.’

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £10.99. Tel: 08430 600033