Reviewer’s Choice: Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

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Translated by Sondra Silverston

Reviewed by Harriet

‘One lie can have a thousand consequences in this page-turning psychological suspense’, says the blurb. This is a fair description of what happens, but when I see ‘psychological suspense’ I imagine something dark, probably with murder involved. This book is far from dark, though it is suspenseful. Let me explain. The central character here is Nofar, sixteen years old when the story starts. Nofar is not happy with herself. She feels unattractive, constantly comparing herself with her gorgeous, popular younger sister. She’s recently lost her only friend at school, and feels like a total failure, sure that when she gets back to school she’ll be seen as ‘the only girl in the class still a virgin’. She’s taken a summer job in an ice-cream parlour, hoping she’ll make friends that way, but that hasn’t happened. Then one day a man comes in to buy ice cream. He’s actually a fading TV star and musician, Avishai Milner, and he’s in a bad mood, which is not improved when Nofar fails to recognise him. He shouts rudely at her, and when she runs outside, upset, he follows her and shouts more abuse at her. He gets too close to her and she screams. Passers by come running to comfort and support her.. Everyone assumes she’s been sexually assaulted, and when the police turn up and ask her she confirms that yes, she has.

The lie is easily told, but it will have huge consequences. Avishai is arrested and imprisoned to await trial. Nofar, on the other hand, becomes a celebrity. She’s interviewed on TV and in the newspapers, celebrated for her bravery in speaking up. But she’s increasingly wracked with guilt about what she’s done to an innocent (though extremely unpleasant) man. And there’s another problem. A teenage boy called Lavi, clever but lonely and introverted, has seen the whole thing from his upstairs window. He approaches Nofar, and a relationship develops between them, though it starts on an unusual footing – he promises to keep quiet about what he saw if she will say on TV that he has been helping her with self-defence. Slowly the two are more and more drawn to each other, but Nofar’s lie about the self-defence leads Liam into a lie of his own – he tells his father he is secretly training to apply to join a special combat group. His father is beyond delighted, as he always thought his son was a complete wimp, but now Lavi has a secret of his own.

Then we meet Raymonde, an elderly woman who lives in a retirement home. Nofar meets her on a school trip to Poland, on which the school children will get to know some Holocaust survivors who are accompanying them. There’s only one problem – Raymonde, though Jewish, lived in North Africa during the war. She’s on the trip because she’s masquerading as her recently deceased friend Rivka, who was indeed in the camp they are visiting. Like Nofar and Lavi, she finds her lie makes her more interesting and popular but, like them, she finds it increasingly uncomfortable to keep it up, especially when she meets and falls in love with a real Holocaust survivor, who wants to set up home with her.

The primary psychological suspense here comes from Nofar’s ever-increasing desire to tell the truth. She comes close again and again, but each time finds she’s not quite ready to do it, especially as she believes she will be punished for deceiving the police and for causing so much distress to an innocent man. What happens in the end I’m not going to tell you. But what is so great about this novel is how much sympathy we have for each of the liars, and how little for Avishai who, though not a child molester, is a deeply unpleasant person, so you come to feel he almost deserves his punishment. Also, of course, the lies Nofar and Raymonde tell have undoubtedly positive effects. In Nofar’s case, many young girls find the strength to speak about assaults they themselves have suffered, and it changes public opinion about ways sexual assaults are handled. As for Raymonde, she is able to continue Rivka’s important work in keeping alive the terrible events of the Holocaust. And Lavi and Nofar’s relationship, though it hits a bad patch, eventually develops in a wholly pleasing direction.

Altogether this is a moving, thought-provoking and ultimately heart-warming novel, excellently translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. I’d never heard of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen but she’s an award-winning novelist and clinical psychologist based in Israel. Highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Liar (Pushkin Press, 2020).  978-1782274056, 288pp., paperback.

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