Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

If you asked me about the time I first discovered Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, I could tell you this was when I read the author’s much-praised second novel, Waking Lions. I couldn’t give you the full synopsis of the plot, though: I recall the protagonist being an Israeli neurosurgeon who, on one of his nightly, stress-relieving drives through the desert hits and kills an illegal immigrant from Eritrea, establishing the groundwork for a tale of blackmail and guilt. They say, however, that feelings are remembered differently from facts, and I can with unfailing accuracy recall how I felt throughout the novel: it was like needing to escape when there’s no way out and the walls are closing in on you. This is exactly the emotional reaction I had to Gundar-Goshen’s latest book, Liar.

The author doesn’t shy away from tinderbox-like topics: Liar is about a sexual assault that didn’t happen other than in the false allegations made by a teenage girl against a once famous singer. The protagonist, Nofar, is an average teenager to the point that she is nearly invisible. Tired of this state of affairs, she decides that the summer holiday before her last year of school will be the summer that changes everything: determined to find love, she toils away at an ice cream parlour and waits to be swooshed away by her motorbike-riding The One.

Her crush from school ends up ignoring her, but things do change, just not in the way she had planned. Towards the end of a long shift for Nofar, fading talent show star Avishai Milner comes in to soothe his sorrows with ice cream, as he, too, has had a particularly unsuccessful day. In a customer service situation from hell, Avishai Milner ends up insulting the way Nofar looks; Nofar, in her shock and confusion, runs to the parlour’s toilets in an alleyway with Avishai’s change with her. The singer follows her, and in a state of anger Nofar lets out a remarkably loud and long scream, alerting the police and the neighbourhood. The on-lookers decide that it must have been an assault, and soon the story is making headlines and traps Nofar into a web of lies in the public eye.

Gundar-Goshen is a master of weaving these webs. To Nofar’s web she adds that of Lavi. An equally awkward teenager, Lavi witnesses everything that did not happen from his bedroom window and starts blackmailing Nofar. She becomes the tool for his lies, too: Lavi is desperate to please his ex-army farther and classmates alike, and it falls upon Nofar to make everyone believe that Lavi will be following in father’s footsteps in taking up a glorious career in the army.

It is this spinning of webs that builds the psychological intensity of Gundar-Goshen’s storytelling. This alone is not enough to create the emotional involvement so characteristic of Waking Lions, though; rather, this comes from the author’s dexterity to create characters that are extraordinary in their ordinariness. Nofar is described as a baby whose midwife praised her beauty and whose parents picked a name meaning ‘lily’ for her, but who “grew up to be a timid, withdrawn young girl who lived in the world as if she were an uninvited guest at a party.” Meanwhile Lavi, with a name that means ‘lion’, is anything but: “as a child, Lavi had waited for the mane to grow in and the muscles to develop under his skin when he finally reached his teens. But the years passed and the hair refused to grow – he had only fourteen hairs on his chin, he counted them in front of the mirror every night – and as for the muscles, well, forget it.” The characters are so ordinary and recognizable with all their teenage insecurities that the reader simply cannot escape sharing their increasingly twisted stories; this is how Liar, like Waking Lions,exerts its grip over the reader.

And that grip holds firm until the very last section of the novel. Gundar-Goshen manages to keep the walls closing in on the reader as the lies multiply and the human relations become more complicated, but she stumbles when the story is meant to reach its climax. Without giving any details away, the peak of the novel is thrown at the reader in an all too hasty manner, and it is action-ridden to the point of being comical. As such, Gundar-Goshen’s grip loosens slightly too early, and this is why, although otherwise a page-turner of a psychological experiment, Liar falls short of being a pitch perfect example of how to make your reader a prisoner of your story.

Liar is not an easy read as it drives the reader out of their comfort zone. It is certain to raise discussion about sexual assaults, lies, and the media’s approach to these issues; it does so in a style that, for the most part, is another tour de force from Gundar-Goshen.

Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Liar (Pushkin Press, 2019). 978-1782273844, 256pp., hardback.

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