The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, translated by Philip Simpson, Penguin Books, 2016
A former Israeli intelligence officer, Yiftach Reicher Atir gives us a novel of a young woman recruited into the Israeli Intelligence Service–the Mossad––based on his vast experience. In a foreword, he describes the novel as “the true story of what never happened.” In other words, it is true in the sense that this is how the Mossad operates and how lives can be shaped by their methods.
One might expect such a novel to be exciting––a page turner. It is not. The problem is instead of telling it largely from the point of view of the primary character—the young woman, Reicher Atir tells the story from too many viewpoints including at times himself as the author. This creates distance between the reader and the characters. As a result, we don’t care as deeply about the young woman as we might have.
The bulk of the novel is told about Rachel by her handler, a Mossad agent named Ehud. Rachel has gone missing fifteen years after completing her mission and leaving the service. They fear she will spill the beans––tell the truth about events they don’t want revealed––and so they bring Ehud back to help them hunt her down.
Over half of the book is Ehud telling her story with only a few pages from Rachel’s viewpoint. As a result, when he reaches the story’s climax, Reicher Atir has to try to convince us that we should empathize with Rachel and understand her motives. It’s too little too late.
As readers we can’t be expected to sympathize with characters because of their roles. They have to come alive as individuals. Neither Rachel nor Ehud come alive for me. She succumbs to her loneliness as a spy in an Arab country by falling in love with a man she is teaching English to. I can buy that, but not her thinking fifteen years after being pulled out that she can go back and reignite that flame. Ehud had strong feelings for Rachel during the years he was her handler, but now in this moment of crisis he thinks those feelings will be enough to save her. Ehud is pathetic, not sympathetic.
The English Teacher may have been a hit in Israel where the Mossad’s role is crucial to the country’s survival, but in the rest of the world, where people do not have such a strong identification with that organization, a story about the Mossad has to win us over––not assume we’re on board. In contrast to Reicher Atir’s approach, Daniel Silva’s stories about Mossad agent Gabriel Allon come alive. We care about Allon because Silva helps us feel the agony of the life-threatening dilemmas and hard choices he faces. No doubt Reicher Atir would say Silva’s Mossad is not realistic, but readers are not primarily interested in realism. The want a good story with characters they care about. Reicher Atir needs to learn that lesson.