Book Review | ‘The Liar’ Tackles Lying and Its Costs

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The Liar cover artThe Liar

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston)

Little, Brown and Company

Here is a woefully incomplete list of the lies that are told in Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s The Liar: A wife tells her husband that she is headed off to Pilates, when she is in fact headed to an extramarital affair. A silent, uncomfortable therapy session is described as “pretty good.” An octogenarian assumes the identity of a deceased Holocaust survivor, speaking to student groups and connecting with other survivors. A mother uses a fake name in conversation with a lawyer. A father lies about a traffic jam.

The lies, Gundar-Goshen writes, come in all shapes and sizes — “small tall thick thin lovely ugly white lies, always white,” one character muses — but they are all dwarfed by the inciting lie of the novel.

Nofar is 17 and distressingly average, by her own assessment. Each glimpse of her younger, more attractive sister, Maya, is a reminder that she is larger than she would like to be, doesn’t have the friends that she wants to have, doesn’t get the male attention that she craves and doesn’t have the clear skin that she desires.

Swirling in those fairly typical anxieties of teenager-dom, Nofar is working her shift at an ice cream shop when a fading musician, similarly afflicted by self-loathing, sets the big lie in motion. Frustrated with her slowness behind the counter, he unleashes a string of cruel insults at Nofar, each seeming to pierce her greatest vulnerabilities. She flees the shop in tears, he follows to apologize and grabs her by the hand. She screams, bringing passersby running towards the scene. Nofar, caught up in a rare moment of attention, decides to confirm what the crowd believes happened: an attempted rape.

Nofar’s lie becomes headline news all over the country, as the musician, faded as he may be, once had enough of a following for a salacious accusation to hold public attention. The novel relies heavily on the overwhelming public support for Nofar, one of the only elements of the story that seems hollow; that the accuser of a once-loved musician would be summoned to the president’s residence to stand as a symbol of bravery, or that she would be feted by clothing companies begging her to wear their products in public, or that invitations to tell her story on television would be extended while the investigation is ongoing, seem off. Perhaps this is a cultural difference with Israel.

That element aside, there is nothing false about the feeling of a having crafted a snowballing lie, one that implicates an innocent person and is figured out immediately by one enterprising onlooker (more on him later). To see Nofar’s lie grow unchallenged and unquestioned is to feel queasy. You, too, know that she is lying, and you, too, don’t particularly want to see her caught. In this way, The Liar is a reverse-detective story: I knew the truth, and found myself rooting for it to remain hidden.

Besides an unwell homeless man, the sole witness to the truth is classmate of Nofar’s, Lavi. Lavi exploits the situation to his benefit, blackmailing Nofar into mentioning that he is being considered for an elite combat unit during one of her TV interviews. This lie, for the benefit of his long-disappointed, Lieutenant-Colonel father, begins a sweet, bizarre relationship between Lavi and Nofar.

As suspicions start to grow — from Nofar’s sister, from her mother, from the female detective assigned to her case — so does the self-deception. That, Gundar-Goshen seems to say, is the ever-present lie. We tell lies of all stripes to other people, but the ones that are most damaging (as well as most necessary) are the ones we tell ourselves. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee famously said, “means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf … who’s afraid of living life without false illusions.” Everyone, of course.

The detective needs to believe that Nofar is a young woman wronged in a world that knows how to do little else. Nofar’s mother needs to believe that her daughter would never tell such a lie. And when Raymonde, the would-be Holocaust survivor, admits her lie to a genuine survivor of the camps, he summons up 90 years of wisdom to pretend that he did not hear her.

The Liar, despite just about everything I’ve just said, can be very funny at points; the true survivor of German atrocity, upon finding a fellow prisoner from his youth, remarks that he’d “been a schmuck in Theresienstadt, and had only gotten worse since then.”

Some of her tricks grow a little tiresome by the end. Every desk, every lasagna and every bench has a short history to be told before it is used. She also has a habit of pulling back to wide generalities, in order to then refocus on something minute; “Some changes occur slowly,” and “some changes erupt all at once,” she writes, describing geological shifts and a flaming match before she gets to the point: Nofar had changed quickly. She uses this again three pages later. And though the story is contemporary, The Liar often reads like a parent’s understanding of how a teen relates to social media.

Here’s the secret, though: Those are just quibbles.

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