“He was thinking that the moon was the most beautiful he had ever seen when he hit the man. For the first moment after he hit him, he was still thinking about the moon, and then he suddenly stopped, like a candle that had been blown out.”
Thus – brutally, abruptly – begins Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s “Waking Lions”, the story of a man tormented by his own actions, inactions, and paralyzing guilt. Eitan is a neurosurgeon recently exiled to a barren outpost in Israel after having attempted to expose his mentor’s unethical behavior. Married to brilliant empath and observer of behavior cum police detective Liat, Eitan believes himself to be morally sound, perhaps even considering himself beyond reproach. And then one evening, in an effort to blow off steam and relax into his new rural life, Eitan fatally strikes a man with his car, considers trying to help, and then turns tail and flees the scene. From this point forward, Eitan’s inner and outer worlds collide and unravel at astonishing speed, and yet…
In truth, Eitan is both forever changed by his tragic actions and numbly staying the course like a mindless automaton.
“[L]ast night he he had run a man over and driven away. Every cell of his body woke to that clear, unalterable reality. He had run a man over. He had run a man over and driven away. He kept repeating the words to himself, trying to connect the vowels and the consonants into something that made sense. But the more he said them, the more they fell apart in his mind until they totally lost substance.”
The accident itself and its sequelae seem unreal to Eitan. He struggles to accept the truth of his actions.
“And yet it still did not feel real to him. As if the thing itself, the actual thing, could not truly penetrate his mind. Could not persuade his mind to take it in, internalize it. The run-over Eritrean stood outside the walls of his consciousness and pounded on the door, screaming to be let in. But inside, only a faint noise could be heard. Like the muted sound he’d made when the SUV had hit him.”
When the victim’s widow tracks Eitan down and essentially blackmails him into starting an underground clinic to offer urgent health care to refugees, the juxtaposition between a doctor seeking to “do good” and a man who finds himself disdaining and dehumanizing his patients becomes clear. Eitan’s awareness that he is not the man he thought he was grows along with the reader’s, making him simultaneously identifiable and deplorable.
“And yes, it mattered that he’d been an Eritrean. Because they all looked alike to him. Because he didn’t know them. Because people from another planet are not really people. And yes, that sounded terrible, but he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. He was only the one who had happened to run one of them over.”
“One after the other, they exposed their bodies to him, filled the garage with that monstrous physicality, skin and limbs, wrath and enmity and messengers of evil. However much he wanted to feel compassion for them, he couldn’t help recoiling from them. Not only their smell and bodily fluids, but also their faces – alien, staring, filled with undying gratitude. He didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak his, so they communicated with waving hands and facial expressions. Without language, without the ability to exchange a single sentence the way people do – one speaks, the other listens and vice versa – without words, only flesh remained. Stinking. Rotting. With ulcers, excretions, inflammations, scars. Perhaps this was how a veterinarian felt.”
Gundar-Goshen’s treatment of the Eritrean woman Sirkit is particularly striking; Sirkit’s words are always delivered in italics, never as quotes or as part of the regular text as all other dialogue is presented. This device serves to emphasize Sirkit’s otherness in Eitan’s mind. It is a subtle device that is incredibly effective.
Gundar-Goshen’s book is a psychological thriller and a brilliant commentary on otherness and self-image. In the current anti-immigrant climate, her message is loud and clear while her words are quiet and subversive.
Thank you to Little, Brown for the complimentary copy of this work in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Waking Lions” will be published in the United States on 2/28/17.
“Men can fasten their eyes on you the way people put a collar on a dog. They didn’t have to tug it; just knowing that the collar was there was enough to make the dog behave.”