In This Thriller, an Israeli Doctor Can’t Escape His Irresponsibility

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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

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Nir Kafri

WAKING LIONS
By Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated by Sondra Silverston
341 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $26.

Eitan Green, the protagonist of the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel “Waking Lions,” is a respected neurosurgeon who has been forced by a professional dispute to relocate from Tel Aviv to Beersheba, a desert town where dust is everywhere, “a thin white layer, like the icing on a birthday cake no one wants.” Speeding through a remote area in his S.U.V. late one night, he hits an Eritrean man walking by the roadside. And when he decides that the victim is beyond help, he impulsively flees the scene.

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The next morning, the victim’s widow shows up at Eitan’s doorstep, holding his wallet and demanding not his money but his expertise. Soon she has blackmailed him into treating illegal immigrants from the northeast of Africa at an abandoned garage that has been turned into an underground hospital. The novel that follows — part psychological thriller, part morality play — takes readers through the wilderness of the Negev desert and its underworld of Israeli drug dealers, Bedouin gangs and desperate refugees.

Gundar-Goshen has said that she believes the writer’s job is to force readers to look at what they’d usually avoid. Not short on discomfiting scenes, “Waking Lions” offers a commentary on privilege and otherness, challenging readers to confront their own blind spots and preconceptions. The themes of visibility and invisibility, of the power dynamics between the observed and the observer, run throughout the narrative. Although the victim’s widow, Sirkit, who scrubs floors at a gas station restaurant, often goes unnoticed by Israelis, she is a beautiful woman, and thus used to the male gaze. She knows that “men can fasten their eyes on you the way people put a collar on a dog.” As the lone witness to Eitan’s crime, she has become “the only one who knew him for what he was.” The authority she holds over him both infuriates and intrigues him. The intimacy that emerges between them is rendered with a restrained intensity that creates some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes.

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In an ironic twist, Eitan’s wife, Liat, is among the detectives investigating the hit-and-run accident. Brilliant at her job, she has an uncanny ability to see through people, yet she finds her own husband increasingly unknowable. Mercilessly scrutinizing him as he sleeps, pushing aside her customary tenderness, she finds the moment “so cruel, so horrifying” that she must look away.

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Trained as a clinical psychologist, Gundar-Goshen examines her characters with the same formidable gaze. Nobody emerges unscathed. Not the arrogant doctor, who displays little compassion for his patients and whose guilt, “like a flower that blooms only for one day,” withers in the face of Sirkit’s “blazing extortion.” Not Liat, who struggles to find her place in a misogynist police force, yet admits to her own prejudice against Arabs. And not Sirkit, whose moral flaws and failures in judgment are divulged as the story unfolds, allowing her to evolve from a saintly victim into a complex heroine.

Gundar-Goshen is adept at instilling emotional depth into a thriller plot, delivering the required twists and turns along with an incisive portrayal of her characters’ guilt, shame and desire, fluidly shifting between their perspectives. Although the tension slackens midway through as the narrative becomes burdened with elaborate back stories and lengthy musings, readers will be rewarded by its exhilarating, cinematic finale. Skillfully translated by Sondra Silverston, “Waking Lions” is a sophisticated and darkly ambitious novel, revealing an aspect of Israeli life rarely seen in its literature.

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