Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s “Waking Lions” (Back Bay Books/Little, Brown), a tense psychological thriller set in Beersheba, was a New York Times Notable Book when it was published last year and won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Now “Waking Lions” is being published in paperback, and the author’s tour of the United States brings her to Los Angeles.
Born in Israel in 1982 and trained as a clinical psychologist, Gundar-Goshen first achieved literary acclaim with the publication of “One Night, Markovitch,” which won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for debut novels and other international literary awards. So it is no surprise that “Waking Lions,” translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and Gundar-Goshen’s first book to be published in the U.S., has caught the attention of American critics and readers. Indeed, the book is already being developed for NBC by Gideon Raff, the Israeli creator of “Homeland.”
The story that Gundar-Goshen tells in “Waking Lions” plays out in the Negev, and the author evokes the oppressive heat and dust that are a burden of daily life for Eitan Green, a neurosurgeon who is deeply invested in his demanding medical career and struggling to meet the challenges of his complicated family life. On his way home to his kibbutz at 2 in the morning after an 18-hour shift at the hospital, he is forced to brake his SUV to avoid hitting a slow-moving porcupine. The encounter symbolizes his frustration and prefigures the crisis that will soon turn him from a mensch — the good doctor, the good husband and the good father — into a man in moral free fall.
“Suddenly, he felt as if that stop had only clarified for him how hungry he was for movement,” she writes. Eitan puts on a Janis Joplin song as the soundtrack from his drive through the desert. “[Nothing could compare to Joplin’s tormented screams. And she really did scream, at full volume, and the engine screamed as well, and shortly after that, even Eitan joined in, screaming exuberantly on the wild descent.”
As it happens, Eitan is descending into a kind of hell. He may have avoided the porcupine, but now his vehicle strikes a man walking along the darkened road, an African immigrant whose head injury is so severe that Eitan tells himself that the man will surely die within 20 minutes “[u]nless you’ve begun to believe in miracles.” He quickly grasps what he should do — call for an ambulance, call for the police, call his wife (who happens to be a senior detective in the Israel Police). But what he decides to do is run. “He couldn’t save this man,” Eitan decides. “At least he’d try to save himself.”
“Waking Lions” shows us an aspect of Israeli life that few American readers have ever glimpsed.
Crucially, the author introduces a Hitchcockian twist that raises the stakes of his hit-and-run. The dead man’s wife has witnessed the accident, and she will compel him to pay a price for what Eitan has done. But she does not want a payoff. Rather, she contrives a kind of payment-in-kind that can be seen as an example of perfect justice even if it falls far outside the law. For Eitan, it is life-changing.
To complicate matters, and almost inevitably, Eitan’s wife, Liat, is assigned to investigate the hit-and-run case. The author, who is active in the Association for Civil rights in Israel, now confronts her readers with the additional layers of moral complexity that exist in contemporary Israel. The victim was a Black immigrant from Eritrea, but suspicion falls on the native Bedouins: “Maybe a Bedouin who came here to steal hit him and took off,” says a man from the kibbutz where the dead man had been a kitchen worker. Ironically, he rules out the possibility that the driver was a member of the kibbutz: “None of our members would hit a man like that and take off.”
Eitan understandably struggles to protect himself and his family, but he has passed into the world where the dispossessed are forced to live. “Alice had fallen into a rabbit hole. Ali Baba had sneaked into the cave. But — he’d just been driving home after a day’s work. How had he suddenly entered this dark and twist wonderland that already had three dead people and one blue baby in it?”
More than that, I cannot say, if only out of respect for the suspense that fills every page of “Waking Lions” and reaches a high boil in a climax that explains why the book captured the imagination of the suits at NBC. Yet Gundar-Goshen transcends the genre of the thriller. In one sublime scene, Eitan recognizes the valor of the African widow who has taken vengeance on him in the most imaginative of ways. “[W]hat did he actually know about her?” Eitan muses. “That one battered Eritrean had called her an angel and one grief-stricken Bedouin had called her a devil, and that both of them were wrong, had to be wrong. Because neither angels nor devils exist. Of that Eitan was convinced. People exist.”
“Waking Lions” is a work of exquisite literary craft, a book that penetrates to the heart and soul of its characters. But it also compels us to consider the weight and meaning of a refugee crisis that is no less complicated and no less painful in Israel than it is here in America. In that sense, Gundar-Goshen has shown us an aspect of Israeli life that few American readers have ever glimpsed.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.