Waking Lions

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By Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Neurosurgeon Eitan Green gets off a grueling 19-hour shift and impulsively decides to drive away his frustrations by racing in the desert around Beersheba. He’s admiring a beautiful moon when he hits something — an Eritrean man about his own age.

As Eitan steps out of his SUV, he wonders what he will find and is paralyzed with fear “because when he takes that last step, he might discover that the man is no longer a man . . . And if the man lying there is no longer a man, he cannot imagine what will become of the man standing there, shaking, unable to complete one simple step. What will become of him.”

The man Eitan finds lying in the desert sand has a fractured skull he will never recover from. Eitan knows that if he takes the man to the hospital or calls the police, he will never practice again. Even his wife Liat, a police detective, can’t help explain that this was a terrible accident. He thinks of all the lives he might save or people he could treat, if he could avoid a manslaughter conviction.

He decides to leave the scene of the accident. The desert is dark and empty; there are no witnesses. There’s no apparent damage to his red SUV. Nothing ties him to the site. He’s conflicted, but desperate.

The next day at home as he pours coffee and moves about his usual routine, he has brief moments of optimism believing that the accident will stay secret and life will go on as always.

Then the doorbell rings – and nothing is ever the same again.

Eitan learns that there was a witness to the accident, and she wants justice. She’s not so interested in the money he offers, although she accepts that, as she is his medical skills. She has organized a clinic for Eritrean immigrants, most undocumented, in an abandoned garage at the edge of the kibbutz. She needs a doctor.

Eitan finds himself using up his sick leave, his vacation time and his weekends taking care of people for his extortionist, the regal Sirkit. He sets broken bones and treats cuts that easily become life-threatening to people who don’t have enough food, clean water or basic first aid supplies to prevent infections.

His wife meanwhile has been assigned to investigate a hit-and-run in the desert that has left an Eritrean dead. To her disgust, her colleagues want to write off the case: there are no clues, no witnesses and it’s only an undocumented Eritrean, after all.

She struggles in a world where her colleagues believe in clearing a case with a closed-door interrogation that ends with a confession — after the suspect’s finger is broken. She goes out to a Bedouin camp near the accident site and asks questions. A young girl comes forward to say that she was with the young suspect, and can vouch that he didn’t do it. The girl ends up shot by her male relatives for seeing the young man without their permission.

As time goes on, Eitan, once a rising star as a neurosurgeon, finds himself edging closer and closer to being fired for his absences and lack of attention to his job. His wife catches him in lies and is close to accusing him of adultery. He’s reaching a point where the blackmail isn’t keeping him from losing the very things he was trying to protect – his marriage, his family and his profession.

At the center of the story is Sirkit, scarred by an abusive husband, living in a rusting trailer with other Eritreans and silently sweeping floors at a nearby diner where she’s treated like a slave when she isn’t assisting Eitan at the clinic. He finds her a surprisingly good nurse. She finds herself getting homesick from a whiff of garbage odor. No one wants to remember the smell of garbage, she tells herself, unless it’s all that you have left of a home you left many miles behind.

This is a suspenseful book filled with complex, fascinating characters. Author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen skillfully layers her characters with flaws and heroic generosity. A reader may not like how a character behaves, but it’s hard to stop liking the people and understanding how their lives have shaped them.

This is a book well worth reading more than once. It ends with characters who are wiser, humbler and greater than they began.

The Author: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (1982 – )

A native Israeli, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. She has been a news editor for one of Israel’s leading newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth), written film scripts and worked for Israel civil rights organizations.

Her first novel was ONE NIGHT, MARKOVITCH, which won the 2013 Sapir Prize. Her film scripts have won prizes at international festivals, including the Berlin Today Award and the New York City Short Film Festival Award. Her third novel, LIAR, was published in 2017.

WAKING LIONS won the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. It was named an editors’ choice by the New York Times Book Review and included on the Wall Street Journal’s “Best Summer Reads” list.

In 2018, she was a visiting author in San Francisco State University; in 2022, she is a visiting artist at UCLA.

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