Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (here translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston) is a thoughtful, often sympathetic and sometimes provocative exploration of the nature of lies and lying. In it, Gundar-Goshen demonstrates how one lie, uttered without premeditation or hope of reward, can ripple outwards almost infinitely, cultivating relationships, shaping opinions and destroying reputations as it does so.

Nofar Shalev is a painfully average sixteen-year-old girl, although that pain seems noticeable only to her. Forever in the shadow of her beautiful and popular younger sister, and recently ditched by her only friend, Nofar is spending her summer holiday working in an ice-cream parlour very much like all the other such parlours spread throughout her home city of Tel Aviv. She whiles away her time at work wishing she was elsewhere, dreaming that she was someone else, and worrying about what will happen when the new school year begins and her classmates realise that she is “the only girl in her class still a virgin” as well as the fact that “next summer, when the fields yellowed, she would be wearing a soldier’s army green”. More than anything, she wants people to notice her.

This desire for recognition is met in an extremely unexpected way when Avishai Milner, fading musician and reality TV star, visits the ice-cream parlour. He’s simply after buying a cooling snack, but he’s rude and demanding and the fact that Nofar doesn’t know who he is pretty much sends him into a rage. She flees the shop in tears; he follows her out and into an alley, continuing to berate her. When he gets too close for comfort, Nofar screams and her world changes. Concerned passersby come running to help her. People offer comfort and support and understanding. The police arrive on the scene and Avishai is detained. Somehow, the assumption is made that Avishai has sexually assaulted her. When the police ask her what happened, Nofar confirms that she has been assaulted. The first lie has been easily told.

Although Nofar is the principal character in Liar and so the main teller of untruths, she is certainly not the only prevaricator in the book. The incident in the alley is actually witnessed by two other commonly overlooked people: a deaf-mute beggar, who was there simply looking for a quiet place to have a pee, and Lavi Maimon, an aggressively melancholy teenager who was hiding out on the balcony of his family’s apartment. While the former keeps quiet about what happened more out of habit and a desire for the underdog to come out on top for a change, the latter sees Nofar’s lie as an opportunity to overcome his family’s expectations and to live up to his name (which means “lion” in Hebrew) with only minimal effort.

The developing relationship between Nofar and Lavi is intriguing and complex, based as it is on a lie (or, perhaps more accurately, a spiralling series of lies). Nofar’s assault is big news across Israel and all the major media outlets want to hear her story. Lavi initially blackmails her into mentioning him and the fact (lie) that he taught her self-defence during a television interview as he wants to impress his dad and to be noticed by his classmates, and Nofar initially agrees to do so because she’s scared that her lie will be exposed otherwise. Yet, the two find themselves increasingly drawn to each other and, although they continue the façade that they are each using the other to achieve some personal end, they begin to develop a genuine sympathy. Gundar-Goshen uses their growing bond to highlight the importance of having someone see beyond the public faces that we all wear and know the truth that lies below the surface.

The other key liar arrives in Nofar’s life from another decidedly unexpected direction. During a school trip to Poland, she meets Rivka, a Holocaust survivor, who is there to share her experiences and to educate the youth of today so that such atrocities do not occur again in the future. Only, Rivka is actually Raymonde, a Mizrahi Jew who assumed her dead friend’s identity almost accidentally and then maintained the deception as it helped her to finally overcome her loneliness and sense of purposelessness. Raymonde’s lie represents another monstrous deception, but it also allows her to continue Rivka’s important work and to keep the (true) events of the Holocaust fresh in people’s minds. Similarly, Nofar’s lie inspires victims of sexual assault to speak out and helps prompt a significant societal shift in terms of how victims of assaults are perceived and treated. When considered from that perspective, are either of their lies really quite as bad as they initially seem? Gundar-Goshen leaves readers with quite the moral quandary here.

It’s odd really, but despite the many massive and undeniably harmful and socially unacceptable lies that are told by numerous characters over the course of Liar, it’s Avishai Milner who seems to most consistently come across as the bad guy throughout the book. Gundar-Goshen prompts readers to consider and confront the troubling fact that, despite it being clear from the outset that he did not attempt or commit a sexual assault, he’s such an arse that it seems almost fitting that he is accused and, in the eyes of the public at least, convicted of a serious crime. While the lives of Nofar, Lavi, Raymonde et al. seem to almost blossom following the telling of their respective lies, Avishai’s life and career are ruined once news of the alleged assault breaks. The rumours about him spread like wildfire and no one seems to question his guilt. Is it necessary to weigh the suffering of one (deeply unpleasant) person against the positives experienced by the world at large when considering whether or not to expose a liar?

For a book that poses so many difficult questions, Liar is an immensely enjoyable read. Gundar-Goshen has crafted her characters well and their struggles, triumphs and mistakes are all too tragically plausible, particularly in the era of fake news, social media and #MeToo. She avoids making overt moral judgements and instead focuses on the grey areas of life. Her central characters are both desperate to be noticed and terrified that their real selves will be exposed, and their dichotomous actions and desires make for a fascinating story.

Erin Britton 5*

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Pushkin Press 9781782274056 pbk Jan 2020