A good doctor, both in ability and morals, hits a man whilst driving home and quickly flees the scene, in a move that changes his life forever. That’s the scene we are faced with in the opening lines of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel Waking Lions. The juxtaposition of nature’s beauty and man’s destruction is shown in the first line: “He’s thinking the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.” And bang! There it is–hard-hitting reality.
Dr Eitan Green’s crime is discovered by Sirkit, the widow of his victim, who expects his repentance in the form of his assistance with treating her patients in an illegal garage hospital for African immigrants. Meanwhile Green’s wife, a police detective, tries to solve the mystery of the hit and run, with no idea the culprit is under her nose, in her home and in her bed. The novel tracks Etian’s secret decent from grace as he covers up his manslaughter, trying to hold down his own hospital job, working the graveyard shift in the garage, fighting his lust for Sirkit, remaining faithful to his wife, and playing the role of loving father to his sons.
Waking Lions says much about attitudes towards immigrants: Eitan’s hit and run victim is one, and the doctor’s assessment that he is beyond help only comes after the realisation that he is thus. However, his later discovery that his secret can no longer be held hostage by Sirkit allows him to walk away from the garage, and yet he stays, risking his freedom, his marriage, and eventually his life to help patients, because it’s the right thing to do.
This timely moral thriller bursts to life with vivid description – the underground hospital, and all it gorily entails, is striking, and made me feel slightly queasy in parts. Gundar-Goshen is a fan of imagery, and uses it beautifully: “For nine months his baby grew in my belly, laid down roots in my heart, spread branches in my chest.”
The plot is also highly sexually-charged in parts, echoing Murikami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle with its dream-like sequences where it becomes as difficult for the reader as the character to decipher what is reality and what is imagination. But within the exhilarating plot, it works. As readers we just need to hold on and enjoy the ride.
Too much repetition grated on me a little – “The pain was painful” was one line that got me. Being told twice in the one paragraph that the phone rang at 8.15 was another. I wondered why an editor hadn’t picked up on this, then surmised that there’s a purpose to it I just hadn’t realised. But that is a small and only criticism, and the sheer splendour of the rest of the book—the suspenseful plot and beautiful lyrical prose make this a book to be treasured.