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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Lies, First Person

Gail Hareven

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To purchase Lies, First Person

Title: Lies, First Person
Author: Gail Hareven
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 370 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Lies, First Person - US
Lies, First Person - UK
Lies, First Person - Canada
Lies, First Person - India
  • Hebrew title: השקרים האחרונים של הגוף
  • Translated by Dalya Bilu

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Our Assessment:

B : effectively creepy meditation on guilt, forgiveness, and framing actions and reactions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 20/2/2015 Jessa Crispin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/2/2015 Boris Fishman
Publishers Weekly . 1/12/2014 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hareven has constructed a deceptively simple novel. (...) Wilful naivety, policies of retribution and a society that views forgiveness as weakness and humanising the tormentor as offensive all come under sneak attack here. Hareven has written a complex, humane novel that is not easily forgotten. It shakes your complacency -- as it should." - Jessa Crispin, The Guardian

  • "Elinor becomes the evil she intends to destroy -- only Lies, First Person isnít a tragedy. As Elinor becomes the woman who hates, she canít say that she hates it. Itís a bracing and, refreshingly, not very American idea, as is the novelís refusal to renounce all violence as a false, or at least costly, remedy. (No novel of hate has ended so cheerfully.) But in a book that so ably elucidates the danger of ideas unleavened by humanism, itís doubly frustrating to discover so much narrative scaffolding unfleshed by texture. Hareven works in a style at once too slack and too ornamental for Elinorís telescoped fury" - Boris Fishman, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Well translated, the novel is tart and testy, filled with insight into writersí ability to lie, omit, and fabricate." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lies, First Person is narrated in the first person -- and Elinor, who tells the story, has for years been writing a newspaper column chronicling the fictional adventures of 'Alice in the Holy City', her Alice a: "perfect idiot and chronic faker". The unreliable-narrator warnings are practically flashing from every angle in this book. Aside from narrator-Elinor there's another layer too, another 'First Person', who figures prominently in the story -- albeit for much of it entirely out of sight: Elinor's uncle (or, more precisely, her father's cousin), Aaron (formerly Aharon, and Erwin) Gotthilf, who many years earlier had written a notorious and widely condemned book, Hitler, First Person, a fictional autobiography, the author trying to put himself in the place of Hitler in writing from his perspective, a questionable attempt to humanize him, or at least see him as human, in yet another sort of first-person lie.
       Aaron claims now to see the error of his ways, embarking on a quasi-'My Mistake'-tour, apologizing for what he did. He even has plans to come to Jerusalem -- but even if he is contrite, he's pretty much the last person Elinor wants to hear from. Decades earlier, when she was still at school, Aaron had written the book while staying with Elinor's family in the hotel they ran. During his stay he had repeatedly raped Elinor's sister, Elisheva, leading to her mental breakdown and the eventual collapse of the family: their mother essentially committed suicide, their father fled to Italy, and Elisheva moved to the United States, embracing Jesus as her savior.
       Elinor, married to Oded and with two grown children (both also currently in the United States), had a hard time dealing with things when they happened, and despite the long time that has passed, is in an anything but forgiving mood. Aaron announces his intentions -- of coming to Jerusalem -- many months ahead of time, but that just gives Elinor time to stew. She has still not worked her way through those awful events, angry at her dead mother, refusing to have any contact with her father, and barely in touch with her sister. Oded, a lawyer, is at least a supportive, loving partner, but Elinor has to deal with the very lingering memories, and the very deep hatred she still feels for this 'Not-man'. Even in trying to wipe him from her life and mind, his evil, like Hitler's, remains unerasable -- and unforgiveable.
       Elinor has a great deal of time to prepare herself for Aaron's appearance -- though she is sure she'll want nothing to do with him,. She decides to visit her sister, to warn her that Aaron has reappeared at least in this peripheral way, in her life, but the trip to America isn't entirely helpful, as her sister's entirely different approach to the aftermath, and her very different new life don't help Elinor work through her own issues.
       Just how off-balance she's thrown by the countdown to Aaron's arrival is demonstrated by what Elinor does with poor Alice -- who, even as a fictional character, surely deserves a better fate (even though it is a nice example of Hareven's viciously humorous streak). Her marriage suffers some, too, as she becomes obsessed with Aaron: unable to ignore him, she tries to face the problem head-on, obsessing about it. Oded tries his best to be supportive, and he does stand behind her completely -- for better and worse, indeed -- but Elinor struggles in trying to figure out how to right and save herself and for quite a while is left flailing.
       Lies, First Person builds to what one expects will be some sort of confrontation, a countdown to Aaron's arrival in Jerusalem. It makes for some suspense but, given the time-span involved, the suspense is very drawn-out.
       Hareven, through Elinor, keeps readers in some state of uncertainty, as facts are slowly revealed and events slowly unfold. . Throughout, there's always the question of how truthful Elinor is being, and what information she is withholding. By presenting all the evidence and posing all the questions solely through Elinor (who herself admits that she isn't always entirely straightforward and honest, that much of what she writes is, in one way or another, self-serving) the larger moral issues, and the question of possible forgiveness (and the possibly unforgivable) get muddied. That muddiness seems to be Hareven's intent, and in the novel's somewhat surprising resolution it's certainly quite effective, but Lies, First Person never really finds the right pitch or pace. High-strung Elinor -- and the counterweight of Oded (set up nicely for the novel's final turns) -- are vivid characters, but most of the rest of the cast much less so. Resorting to mental unbalance, to varying degrees, also undermines the larger ambitions -- such 'episodes' (and they all feel like episodes: even traumatized Elisheva seems to have just gone through a stage) too convenient in lessening the ugly truths Hareven is dealing with.
       The characters have a lot to confront -- pure evil, whether more abstractly (Hitler, or later Pol Pot) or too-close-to-home (the raping writer Aaron) or even within (Elinor is a very angry woman) -- but the way Hareven toys with the idea of evil falls a bit short: the shifts between more abstract theorizing and the up-close real-life examples don't fully work. Neither Hitler's evil nor Aaron's feel proximate enough, nor do the efforts at forgiveness and absolution; so too the ending doesn't pack as much power as that sort of punch really should.
       Though Elinor's voice is a compelling one, Lies, First Person feels a bit too unfocused, a bit too drawn out, the pay-off not quite there for all this build-up.

       Note: supported and apparently organized by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, this translation is also "copyright © 2015 the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature", which is unfortunate (translators should always, always have copyright). And while there are obvious benefits to local authorities taking the lead in translation-projects, offering finished products to foreign publishers, some of the disadvantages show here too, as this translation could have benefitted from American editorial oversight, which surely would have helped avoid slips like referring to the "University of Columbia" (obviously meaning 'Columbia University', or simply 'Columbia') or mention of: "a tour of one of the Bowing plants" (a simple transliteration slip which any American would have caught: it's Seattle, so of course it's a Boeing plant)

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 January 2015

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Lies, First Person: Reviews: Gail Hareven:
  • Gail Hareven at Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Other books by Gail Hareven under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Gail Hareven (גיל הראבן) was born in 1959.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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