Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel, Waking Lions, is more than your guilty-pleasure thriller — although its twists and turns will keep you in suspense until the last page. Translated from the original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published by Little, Brown and Company on February 28, Waking Lions has been called a moral thriller, a description closer to the truth of this novel, which blends intrigue and mystery with the social and political concerns of immigrant and refugee experiences.
Set in the novelist’s native Israel, the novel begins with a murder — the hit-and-run of an undocumented Eritrean immigrant by Israeli doctor Eitan Green. Eitan, speeding down a rural road late at night, slams into Asum and after a quick inspection of the immigrant’s body, decides to flee the scene. Except he’s left some evidence behind — evidence that Asum’s wife, Sirkit, will use to blackmail the doctor into operating a free, nighttime health clinic for Israel’s undocumented immigrants and refugees. But that, as readers will learn, is only the beginning.
In an interview with Bustle, Gundar-Goshen shares her inspirations for the novel, her connection to her characters, and the ways that fictional characters — even those a writer has created themselves — never cease to surprise.
“The original idea for the novel came from a real story,” Gundar-Goshen tells Bustle. “I met a backpacker in the Himalayas who hit a beggar while riding his motorcycle. He was afraid of Indian prison – and he left the man by the side of the road. And the thing is, the backpacker didn't look like a bad man — more like a kid. He had a guitar on his back, an unassuming face. In just a few months he would start university.”
“I was haunted by this story for ten years before I sat down to write it. Only after I realized that the main character is blackmailed by the widow of the man he killed was I able to start writing. I needed the outsider's eye: that of a refugee woman, one of these people who witness everything we do without our giving any attention to her presence. I wanted to investigate what happens when those who are unnoticed notice something that changes the balance," she says.
Throughout Waking Lions, narrative point of view fluctuates — between Eitan, Sirkit, and Eitan’s wife Liat, to a number of more peripheral characters, all by varying degrees complex, sinister, and relatable. Though readers — and Gundar-Goshen — are free to move from one perspective to another quite fluidly, between the characters themselves there are endless barriers to communication, to truth, to sharing of feelings. Gundar-Goshen’s characters look at one another, but they don’t often see one another—particular citizens and immigrants, men and women, the powerful and the powerless.
“It always amazed me how easily people living in the same house become strangers,” Gundar-Goshen says. “Liat, Eitan's wife, wants her house to be mystery-free, completely known to her. I was interested in the strangeness that lies in the most familiar places — the idea that you can share a bed with someone, recognize every inch of his body even with your eyes closed, and still not know what he's dreaming about. I tried to write about those blind spots in relationships. Do we really know our lovers? Do we want to? People usually prefer to make love in the dark, and perhaps it's easier to love someone in the dark, when you don't see everything about him. Maybe in order to stay in love we choose to be half blind about those we love.”
In Waking Lions, it’s amazing how quickly acts of love devolve into acts of self-preservation — and vice versa: Eitan’s beloved profession as a neurosurgeon turns into an unsustainable burden, his love for his family forces him to make the choice to leave Asum’s body on the side of the road, the self-preservational instinct of giving into Sirkit’s blackmail begins to evolve into something deeper — as does Eitan’s hatred of her. Eitan is even appreciating the beauty of the night’s full moon when he hits Asum in the first place.
Waking Lions dives deep into the psychological complexities of this instinct for self-preservation — unsurprising since the novel’s author has a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. “Being a neurosurgeon, Eitan is used to knowing stuff. He thinks he knows the human mind, but the truth is he doesn't even know himself,” says Gundar-Goshen. “Eitan thinks of himself as "a good man." He's a physician, he saves lives, he votes for the liberal party. Like most of us, he has a very solid concept of what kind of person he is — a good guy. But we never really know who we are until the moment we face a hard decision. If Eitan was asked during a dinner with friends, ‘Do you think you'd be able to hit someone and leave him on the side of the road?’ he'd probably say no. But when he does it — hitting an unnamed refugee with his car after a long hospital shift — he's facing the decision, and he makes that choice. His confidence in being "a good Israeli guy" is a sort of hubris, and he's punished for that.”
Running parallel to Waking Lion’s characters’ perservational instincts is the sheer desperation that gives rise to those instincts to begin with. Eitan, obviously, is desperate to keep his job, maintain his in-tact family, and stay out of jail. But the desperation of Israel’s undocumented immigrants and refugees — particularly Sirkit’s — runs much deeper. Where Eitan’s suffering has a clear beginning and end, Sirkit’s is enduring, causing her to make certain choices that may shock readers, almost as much as Eitan's initial crime. This is what makes Sirkit a particularly compelling character — she’ll shock you, but like Eitan, she’ll also force you to consider what you might do in a similar situation; force you to discover that your own actions might not be so different after all. I asked Gundar-Goshen about this.
“When I wrote Sirkit, a refugee woman, I thought of a sentence I heard from a Holocaust survivor: "The best of us died in the death camps. You had to be a son-of-a-bitch to stay alive." We usually think of refugees as saints, but one can't stay a saint forever if one wants to stay alive. Sirkit wants to stay alive. More than that, she doesn't want the life of a dog or a cow — she wants the life that Eitan has. She feels entitled to it. And when Eitan is surprised by her lack of compassion, he forgets that compassion is a privilege," she says.
Privilege is something else Waking Lions will have readers considering deeply — again, challenging assumptions readers might have about their own lives and decision-making abilities. Without giving away the ending, I ask Gundar-Goshen if she ever considered another conclusion — if, in fiction or in real life, it’s even possible for a story like this to end any other way than Waking Lions does.
“I was surprised by the way the novel ended,” Gundar-Goshen says. “I refused to think about the ending while writing because I wanted to be surprised. What's the point of walking the whole way if you know what you're going to find in the end? A part of me wanted Eitan to be caught, and get what he deserves. Another part wanted him to be safe — I spent so many hours with him, I really cared for him. I didn't want to have a cheesy happy ending. But then I thought: what's a happy ending? If he's in prison, is that "happy"? If my protagonist is saved — as white men always get away with stuff — is that "happy"?”
Like the best novels, Waking Lions will put you directly into the experiences of people whom you might not have considered otherwise, leaving you wondering what you might do in their shoes. The novel closes the distance between citizens and immigrants, citizens and refugees, the powerful and the powerless — while at the same time shedding glaring light on those very real-world divides.
“When we read the news, we look at the stories from a distance. When I read about a hit-and-run in the papers, I automatically tend to judge the person who did it, rather than to ask myself: "Could I do the same?” But when you take such a story from the news and try to write it as literature, it's not about quick judgments anymore. Fiction aims at our hearts, not just our minds. We empathize with the leading character, and thus, instead of judging others, we start to wonder about our own acts. I wanted the readers to finish the book with this question: Had it happened to you — driving home late at night, hitting an unnamed refugee, and with no one to ever know — are you absolutely sure you wouldn't flee?"