The Part­ing Gift

  • Review
By – September 24, 2018

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 Gifts 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.

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