Unlike the minority of novelists who frame their stories as discovered texts, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven has her narrator swear off truth entirely by announcing, “You should never believe writers, even when they pretend to be telling the truth. Everything that’s written here is pure fiction.” Hareven’s “Lies, First Person” begins with Elinor Brandeis happily living in Jerusalem. Her grown children thrive abroad, her loving husband Oded is a successful lawyer, and she pens a beloved newspaper column. Elinor’s paradise is interrupted by the unexpected call of her estranged uncle, who she refers to as the “Not-Man.” Her husband’s family believes her estrangement with Professor Aaron Gotthilf’s is the result of his controversial “Hitler, First Person,” a terrible fictional autobiography of the holocaust’s architect, but only Oded knows the cause is his rape and abuse of Elinor’s sister Elisheva. Shaken by Gotthilf’s intrusion, and further still by a visit to Elisheva’s home in rural Illinois, Elinor descends into madness and murder.
Elinor is our main attraction. A witty and conversational narrator, she engages the reader by acknowledging her own artifice. Alternating between idyllic and cynical descriptions of her childhood, she informs us of her deception: the “Ball of dust under the radiator so that we won’t notice the used condoms next to the bed… that admitting the existence of the dust creates the illusion of honesty.” The consummate unreliable narrator, Elinor compounds her deception with such admissions. Elinor is also morally compromised; her attempt at vengeance is somewhat justified by her guilt for Elisheva and Gotthilf’s perfect monstrosity, but her mission’s purity is diluted by her degree of separation from the Not-Man’s crimes.
With “Lies, First Person” Hareven crafts a novel that succeeds where “Hitler, First Person” fails—it’s an intriguing work that gets close to the mind of an unrepentant criminal. An often tense and sometimes funny book, Hareven both thrills and leaves her readers with serious conundrums. (Brendan Buck)
Lies, First Person
By Gail Hareven; translated by Dalya Bilu
Open Letter, 375 pages, $15.95