Book Review: Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
When we first meet Nofar, the protagonist of Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston), she is handing out ice cream cones at her mundane summer job. We are quickly assured that she is perfectly and, to herself, painfully average: “a marginal, harmless existence that was now seventeen years old” (16). Always in the shadow of her charming sister, Nofar longs for something unique and exciting to happen in her life – but when she lets people believe that a rude customer attempted to assault her, her actions are not premeditated. The lie simply happens. Quirky and captivating, Liar is a nuanced examination of how assumptions and fabricated stories can take on a life of their own, becoming the backbone of our identity and relationships.
The title of Gundar-Goshen’s book can be deceptive: Nofar is only one of the many liars that populate its pages. From Lavi pretending to attend military screening to Raymonde adopting her dead friend’s identity, the characters make up stories out of loneliness, boredom, and desire to be noticed and accepted – as we all do. Most of us will never make an innocent person face prison time because of our lies, but all the tiny half-truths and omissions can be such a minor daily occurrence that we fail to give them a second thought.
But where is the line drawn between harmless white lies, told to be more likeable and polite, and lies that become socially unacceptable and morally unbearable? Liar probes this question with wonderful flair and keen knowledge of human behaviour.
Gundar-Goshen captures the power of words to shape reality, but also stresses the importance of having an audience to do so. We constantly perform our identities into existence, constructing ourselves and our relationships – and any performance requires an audience. A concerned and attentive crowd is what pushes Nofar to lie in the first place: “The dreamy-eyed cashier. The red-haired saleswoman. Neighbours from their balconies. Two traffic cops ... [everyone] came to see what was happening. Nofar’s body was awash with the kind of light that radiates from fondly gazing eyes” (29). Similarly, the desire to have an audience is what drives the behaviour of Avishai Milner, a z-list celebrity accused of the assault. With his vanity and rudeness, he is perhaps the least likeable of all characters – a clever storytelling decision that seems to exercise the readers’ own morality. Even with the awareness that there has been no sexual assault, it is easy to feel like Avishai gets what he deserves.
But in Liar, reality-shaping and identity-building comes way before a person can tell his or her first fabricated story. The two main characters, Nofar and her boyfriend Lavi, are both victims of the “hopes and expectations” (14) of their parents, forever trying to live up to the names they got at birth. Nofar is prophesied by the delivery nurse to grow into a flower-like beauty, and thus named “water lily,” but becomes an average-looking, awkward teenager; and Lavi, meaning “lion,” is a skinny and timid boy, a constant disappointment to his army father. Again, what might seem like an innocent word has the power to impose constraints and influence someone’s entire future.
Despite its heavy topic, Liar has an often-quirky atmosphere that can feel like a literary version of Amelie: with the shyness and imagination of the protagonist, the colourful setting, and the narrative zooming in and out of the neighbourhood windows to show the snippets of the other characters. In fact, Gundar-Goshen moves so seamlessly between the plot twists and builds such a vivid and suspenseful story that the book feels like it could be wonderfully translated into film.
Liar is a brave book to be released at the time when many victims of sexual assault finally finding the courage to speak up get accused of riding the #MeToo wave for attention or financial gain. But Liar is a lot more than a story about false accusations. The book avoids condemnation or moral judgement, and while Gundar-Goshen does capture the way our society fuels gossip and makes nicely crafted stories more attractive than truth, the book feels less like social commentary and more like a nuanced insight into the nature of lying.
Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is translated by Sondra Silverston and published by Pushkin Press on 28 March 2019.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.