Waking Lions

Little, Brown and Company  2017


In the back of beyond in the Negev, somewhere between Omer and Beersheva, Dr. Eitan Green—a man of principle who ended up in Beersheva because he refused to tolerate bribery in the medical field—runs over an Eritrean migrant worker while on a midnight drive through the desert. He leaves his victim by the side of the road and drives away.

Yes, it mattered that the man had been an Eritrean. Because they all looked alike to Eitan. Because he didn’t know them. And yes, that sounded terrible, but he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. He was just only the one who had happened to run one of them over.

There is a folk proverb that says that once a lion is woken up and tastes human flesh, it will never eat anything else again. In Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, the woken lion is Sirkit, the wife of the man Eitan ran over; the flesh she refuses to let go of is Eitan’s. The day after the murder, she appears at Eitan’s home holding his wallet. She uses it to blackmail Eitan into setting up a night clinic in a garage where he is forced to treat the sick of the Eritrean refugees. Eitan is trapped. He must work at his makeshift clinic at night or face murder charges, and he must continue to live his everyday life as a neurosurgeon in a nearby hospital. All this must be done without his children discovering his secret life. It is especially imperative that he keeps his secret from his wife, who is a police officer actively investigating the crime.

As Eitan hides his night activities, Sirkit hides her true motives. The two work together night after night as Eitan fabricates stories for his family. Eitan and Sirkit are ambiguous about each other: “It’s difficult to hate for such a long, continuous period of time. Two people work in the same place for hours. Around them, people come and go. But it’s always the same two people in the same place. . . . they begin to be too tired even to hate.” A relationship builds between them.

The author elegantly intertwines symbols and metaphors into her tale. The moon is vital to the Eritrean woman, because it allows Eitan to see to perform his procedures. Sirkit herself grows roses next to her door, a clear reference to Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, where roses grew next to the jailhouse where Hester was kept. The women in both novels kept their secrets.

The Eritreans and the Bedouins are portrayed as underdogs—viewed as unwanted trespassers on the land of the story. The hatred of the Israelis toward the two groups is reciprocated. A Bedouin boy hits an Israeli boy in the eye with a hammer; the Israeli police casually deal with the Eritrean and Bedouin deaths. One feels for the strangers who are treated so cavalierly by the society that harbors them.

Waking Lions is a sophisticated and eloquently written book. It is also a gripping read, offering readers a fascinating look into the little-known culture of the Eritrean refugee camp. It allows the reader to enter a world of secrets, moral corruption, and redemption.

Visiting Scribe: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

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