In his first two novels (Light Fell and When We Danced on Water), American-born Israeli writer Evan Fallenberg proved to be masterful at portraying highly sympathetic characters grappling with terrible losses and inner turmoil. Now in The Parting Gift, he delivers what may be his most psychologically astute work yet, an intense tale of gripping suspense, narrated by a complex protagonist whose shrewd intelligence, scarily intuitive insight, and warm charisma lethally combine with a severe narcissistic personality disorder. Indeed, The Parting Gift is such intricate and unsparing storytelling that comparisons to the best of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell seem in order.
The novel — which takes us from the halcyon days of a passionate love affair to its breathtakingly brutal unraveling — is framed as a letter that the unnamed narrator is writing to his friend; he and his wife have been hosting the narrator in the aftermath of his abrupt return from a sojourn in Israel.His protracted stay in his hosts’ tiny apartment has clearly become burdensome for them, yet he seems strangely ungrateful. Though these and other early warning signs of the man’s inner disorder are visible, for many pages we are swept along by his breezy and affable voice and adventurous nature.
In the letter, the narrator describes his sudden decision to move to Israel. On anouting to visit a spice farm that has become all the rage among foodies, he takes one glimpse of its owner, Uzi, a salt-of-the-earth bear of a man, and is instantly smitten with desire. After rapidly seducing Uzi, the narrator proves himself as an able worker, learning the business so well that he soon elevates Uzi to culinary guru status. He also manages to ingratiate himself deeply into the lives of Uzi’s former wife and children. He learns their intimate secrets and weaknesses, and also those of Uzi’s most trusted Palestinian employees. It isn’t long before he convinces himself that he is the true “mainstay of this family and this business.” And all seems absolutely harmonious on the prosperous coastal farm until one day it isn’t.
As if unable to believe that Uzi is as devoted to him as he deserves, the narrator sleuths obsessively for signs of betrayal, which he finds everywhere. Here the plotting gets especially tricky and yet the author pulls it off, brilliantly capturing his unreliable narrator’s growing paranoia, the enormity and consequences of which grow to the heights of Shakespearean villainy. (Imagine Iago in a rural Israeli village.) And as grotesque as this social striver grows in his self-delusions, to the author’s credit, every detail of what unfolds is somehow utterly believable.
Without plot spoilers, what ensues makes for some truly jaw-dropping reading. Yet in spite of The Parting Gift’s taut brevity, it delivers far more than an unforgettable portrait of obsession, offering deeply felt renderings of both rural and urban Israel, compassionate and wise portrayals of relations between Jews and Arabs, parents and children, and exposing the legacy of toxic masculinity. All of this is narrated in richly sensual language, whether in the heady flavors and piquant aromas of Uzi’s herbs and spices, or sizzling scenes of eroticism.
In the denouement to his harrowing confession, the narrator leaves us with a disquieting twist, an admission that on one level cunningly places in question much of what we thought we understood all along. Still, read another way, these final revelations may be something else entirely — metafictional innuendo gesturing slyly to the work of the novelist himself, and the inevitably messy, entwined nature of life and art. Regardless of how one reads it, this extra meaning arrives almost as an uneasy benediction, its own “parting gift” that ensures this heartbreak of a novel will linger uncomfortably long in the reader’s imagination.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.