I do love books that depict characters caught in a moral dilemma. Which is exactly what I got with Waking Lions by the Israeli novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. How could I not like a novel which begins in this dramatic fashion:
He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.
The ‘he’ in this case is Doctor Eitan Green, a skilled neurosurgeon who has just finished his shift in a backwater of a city. It’s a downgrading for this doctor, the penalty he played for questioning some dubious practices by another surgeon in his previous hospital. Lose your job or leave town was the stark choice with which he was faced. So this is a man who has been hitherto an upright citizen and loving father and husband.
It all goes pear-shaped when he takes his SUV out for a fast night time drive in the desert. The man he hits looks unlikely to survive but shouldn’t Eitan call the police and report the accident? He knows he should. But he doesn’t.
It’s the turning point in his life, a decision that will set in motion blackmailing, illicit surgical operations on Eritrean refugees and a potential affair with the victim’s wife. As if this isn’t enough for Eitan to handle, he also finds he has unwittingly stepped into a crime network that deals in violent assaults, rape and murder. Eitan also has problems on the domestic front – his involvement with the Eritreans requires him to lie to his wife from whom he becomes increasingly distant.
The book begins with tremendous impact but loses some of its power when the focus moves away from the accident and its aftermath. Gundar-Goshen broadens her scope to meditate on a variety of topics, from poverty and international politics to domestic life and privilege.
Important topics but I found these digressions irritating because if felt as if the author was simply dragging out the story by throwing in as many themes as possible. Then towards the end of the novel we get taken back to more of the police thriller type story and the question of whether Eitan will be unmasked. It makes for a frustrating read because it’s clear that Gundar-Goshen is a talented writer. If only she’d restrained herself on the thematic front.
Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar Goshen: Footnotes
Waking Lions was first published in Hebrew in 2014. My edition, translated by Sondra Silverston, was published by Pushkin Press in 2016
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel. Her debut novel, One Night, Markovitch, published in 2012, won the Sapir prize for debut fiction — Israel’s version of the Booker Prize and has since been translated into thirteen languages. Waking Lions, her second novel, won the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize and was included in the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2017.