The debut novel from Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, is an intense, twisting tale of prejudices ripped open, guilt that cannot be ignored and the inconvenience of having another person’s humanity exposed before you.
Israeli neurosurgeon Eitan Green wakes up next to his wife, cares for his sons, goes to work at the hospital, returns home, ingests food, sleeps. His fingernails grow four centimeters a year. Things continue normally. Such could’ve been the life of Eitan, husband to police officer Liat and father to Yaheli and Itamar. But one night, beneath a moon that he thinks is the most beautiful he has ever seen, Eitan drives his SUV into the desert. He’s feeling stifled. As he’s tearing through the desert, singing along to Janis Joplin, Eitan runs over a man who appears seemingly out of nowhere. It is a black man, an illegal Eritrean immigrant, and Eitan flees, leaving the man to bleed out and die.
But the next day, the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, appears at Eitan’s front door with his dropped wallet in her hand. She is a force unlike anything Eitan has ever known, and she demands he come to a shabby garage in the middle of the night. There, Eitan is forced to tend to Eritreans, some with infected wounds from their journey through the Sudan and Egypt, others with internal diseases. Every night, Eitan steals away to the desert to treat them, and he begins to acknowledge a population that he’d be much more comfortable to ignore. Sirkit’s fingernails, too, grow four centimeters a year.
All the while, Liat investigates the murder of the Eritrean man. Eitan and Liat’s marriage grows brittle beneath the tension of his many secrets, and his double life builds to an explosive moment that is as heart-rending as it is inevitable.
Gundar-Goshen has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut. Waking Lions is her first novel to be published in the U.S., and it is a literary achievement for its page-turning exploration of inconvenient empathy and culpability. Gundar-Goshen’s descriptions of pain and medicine are tender and startling, but perhaps the novel’s greatest strength is the way it considers how we look at each other, the power of our gaze on strangers and on those we love. It’s about seeing and being seen, about pride and power.
This is a brave novel, socially aware and truly unforgettable.