In his first two novels (Light Fell and When We Danced on Water), American-born Israeli writer Evan Fallenberg created highly sympathetic characters grappling with terrible losses and inner turmoil.
Now, in The Parting Gift, Fallenberg delivers an intense tale of psychological suspense, narrated by a complex protagonist whose shrewd intelligence and warm charisma lethally combine with a severe personality disorder.
Told in epistolary form by its unnamed narrator, the story takes us from the early days of a passionate love affair to its brutal unraveling. We meet this young man as he prepares to take leave of an old college friend, Adam, and his girlfriend, Beth, who have been hosting him in the aftermath of the narrator’s abrupt return from a sojourn in Israel.
As he narrates his story, we are swept along by his genial voice and adventurous nature, beginning the day he abandons his friends in Israel on their outing to visit a spice farm that has become all the rage among Israeli foodies. One glimpse of its owner, Uzi, a salt-of-the-earth bear of a man, and he is smitten with desire.
After rapidly seducing Uzi and proving himself an able worker, the narrator learns the business so well that soon he has elevated Uzi to true culinary guru status. He also ingratiates himself deeply into the lives of Uzi’s former wife and children. He learns their intimate secrets and weaknesses and those of Uzi’s most trusted Palestinian employees. It isn’t long before he convinces himself that he is the true “mainstay of this family and this business.”
All seems absolutely harmonious on the prosperous coastal farm until one day it isn’t. As if unable to believe that Uzi could truly be as devoted to him as he deserves, he sleuths obsessively for signs of betrayal and finds it everywhere.
Here, the plotting gets especially tricky and yet the author pulls it off, brilliantly capturing his unreliable narrator’s growing paranoia, the consequences of which grow to the heights of Shakespearean villainy (imagine Iago in a rural Israeli village).
Ultimately, the amoral narrator delivers more than a powerful portrait of obsession, offering colorful renderings of both rural and urban Israel, Jews and Arabs, parents and children. All of which is narrated in richly sensual language, whether in the heady flavors and piquant aromas of Uzi’s herbs and spices, or sizzling scenes of eroticism. This psychologically resonant heartbreak of a novel will linger long in the reader’s imagination.
(Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE-endowed chair of Judaic studies at the University of Louisville.)
The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg,
Other Press, 2018, hardcover. 256 pp.