Hesh Kestin’s novel title, “The Lie,” just as easily refers to what is lying beneath the surface, or lying in wait, as it does to a piece of untrue information. The story’s protagonist, Dahlia Barr, is a left-wing human rights attorney freshly turned chief superintendent of Israeli police — and she is consumed with each sense of the word “lie.”
“The Lie” takes place mostly in Tel Aviv and never lets us forget how enmeshed the Arabs and Israelis are, through heritage, territory and so much of their culture. “
is the term Israeli Jews commonly use for Arabs, Jews and Muslims being descended from one father, Abraham. The irony is implicit.”
Kestin plants a huge hint in the prologue and reminds you of it often enough. He is no John le Carré in subtle. Two babies have been switched at birth in a land where people are forced to take sides. This premise also was the root of the recent film “Other Son,” in which the news is broken to Israeli and Palestinian families and their teenaged children.
As hokey as this setup could be, it’s extraordinarily fun and surprisingly intriguing to hold this secret while reading the novel; it certainly unlocks new dimensions in the text, such as when Dahlia, interrogating Edward Al Masri, says “In life, we do get to choose what we will be.”
Edward, a non-religious professor at McGill University in Montreal, flies to Israel to work with Hezbollah but is quickly arrested by security forces at the airport in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, Dahlia’s army-officer son, Ari, and his Bedouin tracker are kidnapped by Hezbollah and secreted away to Beirut.
Hezbollah wants to trade the two soldiers for Edward. In negotiations, a Hezbollah commander says, “One Muslim is worth two Jews.” The irony here is rich to those in the know.
Tiny chapters, heavily laced with Uzi-burst dialogue, keep the book moving. While Kestin makes many of his Arabs likeable, there’s no confusion which side has the sympathy of this 18-year veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, as in this exchange when Dahlia interrogates Edward after he’s been taken into custody:
“Edward, I can’t help you if you persist in telling fables. No judge will believe them.”
Edward shouts back at her: “Just as no one believes seven hundred thousand Arabs were made homeless by your repugnant Jewish State! Do you really think I owe it honesty?”
Dahlia: “Edward, eight hundred and fifty thousand Jews were at the same time booted out of twelve Arab countries. This isn’t CNN. You should consider the truth. The truth is always best.”
The characters and sides work to advance their own agendas based on assumptions about the other’s identities: “The Jews have one weakness. They will fight to the last child.”
Or, “Self-deception is an Arab infliction.” And, “Patience is an Arab virtue.”
Dahlia’s inner struggles reflect the broader narrative conflict: mother/superintendent of police; wife of Israeli businessman/lover of a CNN reporter; and her dueling latent identities. Changes in her character are beautifully delineated.
“She had always thought of herself as compassionate, caring. Now she sees the other side, the side the others see.” She rejects that other side and struggles to redefine herself as the person she wants to be.
Kestin gives us a traditional literary rebirth scene: Dahlia slips off her clothes and relaxes into the water of her home’s pool, “the temperature not that much different from her own.” She finds herself buoyed by hope and sleeps. Emerging from the water, she’s willing, for the first time, to admit vulnerability to her husband.
In several places the exposition seems forced, which causes the book’s only reading discomfort. The characters verbalize things that each would already know, as when Edward tells Dahlia, “Your mother and mine are friends.” Later, she says, “Edward, we were born the same time, in the same hospital, adjacent beds.”
Apparently, such lines are provided for those who don’t read prologues.
By the time Dahlia sees the terrorists’ video clip of her child, the reader is so invested in the story and in Dahlia’s life that her horror leaps from the page, though the language understates the emotion. “Ari’s face is not shown on the screen. But a mother knows her own son.”
The questions about religion and nationality fall away in this scene, and the reader is left simply with a mother and a son.