Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Waking Lions Will Keep You Awake

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I can't remember if it was the arresting cover or Maureen Corrigan's review on NPR last month that initially drew me to this novel by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen but between the excellent translation from the Hebrew and the storyline, "Waking Lions" did keep me reading half the night. Gundar-Goshen, in an interview in "The Guardian," admits to her left leaning politics and disgust with the current Israeli leadership. She is also a psychologist who marries her politics and her profession beautifully in this thrilling exploration of Israel's refugee crisis, one you may not be familiar with.

Dr. Eitan Green is still chafing after having been transferred to the barren, dusty city of Beersheba from his sparkling clean neurosurgery suite in a Tel Aviv hospital after having fallen out with his supervisor. Frustrated by the lack of supplies, the long hours, and his feelings of being an inadequate provider for his wife and two boys, Eitan takes off one night in his SUV, music blaring, tires speeding and spinning in an orgy of childishness. The sudden thunk barely registers at first but the full moon cannot hide the fact that Eitan has run down another human being. In scarcely an instant the doctor examines the faceless Eritrean immigrant, concludes that he cannot survive his injuries, and heads home deciding that no one will look for the killer of one more Bedouin immigrant. 

How he could think that the hit and run would not have consequences (his wife, Liat, is a well-respected police investigator) is beyond us as readers. Or, is it? Of course, that is the question that we must ask ourselves. Yes, this plot device has been used before in literature to excellent effect, I'm thinking of Boyle's "Tortilla Curtain," or Lawrence Osborne's "The Forgiven." Gundar-Goshen adds nuance and ambiguity to our reading by painting Eitan as an arrogant physician who often doesn't "see" his patients and Liat as an officer known for being an astute observer.

It's not until the African woman arrives at his door with his wallet in her hand that Eitan realizes he will not easily be let off the hook. Sirkit is the hit and run victim's wife and she wants something that only Eitan has, not his money but medicine and his ability to treat the hundreds of Eritrean immigrants who live in camps outside the city in squalor. He dares not refuse her.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Oh Shakespeare, how well you understand our humanity! As Eitan struggles to do the bidding of his blackmailer, keep up rounds and surgery at the hospital, and avoid awkward questions from Liat who is now investigating the Eritrean's death, he becomes mired in debilitating guilt and shame. Yet he also faces a chance at redemption. Working side by side with Sirkit, once just another anonymous black face but now a person with a life, a past, feelings, losses, grit, Eitan may find a way to become a better, more generous human being. Will he?

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