Life & Culture

The Israeli author on a quest to find out how well she knows her family

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s latest novel explores how well we know the people we love


How much do we really know about the people we love? And do we even want to learn the truth, if it means discovering they are not who we thought they were?

In her gripping fourth novel, The Wolf Hunt, acclaimed Israeli writer and clinical psychologist, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen explores these questions from the perspective of a mother who thinks she knows everything about her beloved teenage son, but starts to fear she knows nothing.

Set in Silicon Valley, Israeli immigrants, Lilach and Mikhael live a contented life with their shy, reclusive, American-raised son, Adam, but their calm is disturbed when an antisemitic attack occurs at the local synagogue. In response, Adam reluctantly joins a self-defence class, run by Uri, a former Israeli Special Forces officer.

After the death of a black teenage boy at a house party, rumours begin to circulate that Adam and his new friends might have been involved. As Lilach embarks on an investigation of her own, the lines between victim and aggressor, protector and adversary become increasingly unclear.

Structured around short, taut, pacey chapters, the story, part crime thriller, part psychological drama, is told from Lilach’s perspective.

“The idea came from my own experience, which is partly why I made it a first-person narrative,” Gundar-Goshen, 41 explains on a Zoom call from her home in Tel Aviv that she shares with her partner and their three children.

When she took her eldest child, now nine, to her first day at pre-school, her daughter was excited but Gundar-Goshen recalls feeling paranoid. “I was looking suspiciously at all the other kids wondering which one of the girls was going to harm my daughter or which one of the sweet four-year-old boys was a potential monster.”

As she walked home, she realised that all the other sobbing mothers shared the same fear. “But none of us stops to wonder if our child could actually be the wolf. That very disturbing notion — how much do I know my own child — is what initiated writing the book.”

Israel has been Gundar-Goshen’s home and the setting for her previous novels, but after the successful American publication of her second book, Waking Lions, another thriller for which she won the 2017 Wingate Prize, jointly with Philippe Sands, Gundar-Goshen was invited to teach as an author-in-residence at San Francisco State University.

Although it was not her first trip to the US, until then, she had never lived there. “For Israelis right now, the ultimate dream is not to go to Zion. As it was in my grandparents’ generation, it’s to go to the West,” she says, smiling.

“When Israelis talk about relocating to the Silicon Valley, it’s no longer considered abandoning the promised land, because America became the promised land.”

The book’s Hebrew title, Relocation, points to this aspiration. Relocation is actually a Hebrew word, Gundar-Goshen explains, but it carries a different connotation than in English.

“It’s used whenever somebody moves to work in tech in America. Relocation,” she says, rolling and emphasising the Hebrew letter, resh, “is to live the American dream. Ironically, relocation can’t be the title in any other language because [the meaning changes] but in Hebrew, it’s perfect, although my mother was [originally] pissed off,” she grins. “She was a teacher of Hebrew language and literature and so the idea of a title that’s an English word, written in Hebrew annoyed her.”

To Israeli kids, America is the new empire, she continues. “They can describe LA and New York better than areas in Israel, not because they’ve been there but because this is the place of our dreams, of mythology. I found it fascinating, the idea that you have this very strong sense of place.

“As an author, I love this gap between image and reality.”

The cultural distance that Gundar-Goshen felt in California, as a Jew and an Israeli, surprised her. “Being Israeli, means being a bit direct, rude and having chutzpah and it took me a while to realise just how much of an outsider I was.

“For example, in the first week, I felt like Cinderella. Everything was ‘interesting’ and ‘amazing’. My book, my kids, me... we all looked ‘amazing’. And then the big fall comes when you realise they don’t think that at all,” she says. “I thought it would be easy because I speak English, but I definitely don’t speak American. It is a different language.”

Although she had taken her family away from the pressures, craziness and dangers of life in the Middle East, in America, Gundar-Goshen observed the differences of Jewish life and the reality of antisemitism, including the deadly massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Unlike Lilach, who chose to emigrate to the US because she did not want to raise her child in a constant state of war, Gundar-Goshen wanted to return to Israel but says, “As a mother of two boys… If things go on as they are right now, we’ll have to recruit them to the IDF.

“Lilach made a decision that I don’t want to make.”

Despite her wish that Adam should not be defined by Zionist macho men holding guns [like Uri], Lilach worries that, being bullied, he embodies “the exile Jew, the ultimate outsider”, Gundar-Goshen says.

“She is later shocked by the possibility that her child, instead of being an outsider in America, would rather affiliate with the same identity she resents.” There’s something about the IDF for Israelis, she adds. “It’s like the glue that keeps masculinity together.

"And in a way, Adam longs for that. He doesn’t want to be an American teenager. He wants to be part of something bigger than himself. And it’s empowering for him.”

As well as exploring the complexities and contradictions of Israeli identity, another central theme in the book is race, but initially Gundar-Goshen was advised by her American publisher not to write about this because the subject was too explosive.

“There was a big discussion about the question of a white woman writing the character of a black woman or a black teenager. But literature is about expanding our boundaries,” she argues.

“Instead of being stuck in a specific time or place, you can be everywhere when you read or when you write, right?

“And as for not writing about race because it’s too explosive… I think literature should deal with exactly that.”

There are parallels with her work as a clinical psychologist, she says. “When there’s a taboo, when patient comes into the clinic and says they don’t want to talk about something, that’s the one topic we have to talk about.

"And I think it’s the same with race. If you don’t want to talk about it, then we must. I think literature should deal with exactly this.”

Our conversation turns briefly to discussing the current protests against the Israel government’s proposed judicial overhaul.

“I’m more optimistic than I was. We’re fighting,” she says, telling me she attends the weekly demonstrations with her colleagues.

“We all go together because the concept is that you can’t have a healthy mental health system when the country itself is not healthy.”

Her children often accompany her too. “It’s the best democracy education they’re ever going to get.”

Through Lilach, the women of Silicon Valley are described in quite disparaging terms, as coordinators, consultants, artists or therapists. I ask if that was Gundar-Goshen’s perception.

She pauses before replying. “It was very clear that you have the women who are working there in tech or doing their postdoctoral studies, and also women who have followed men there. Some of them are brilliant career women who left everything in Israel, sometimes arriving without a proper working visa.

"Suddenly, these women who had a career and a world of their own, become the wife of or the mother.

"But when you define yourself by your motherhood, what happens when you realise that your child, who you think of as the biggest project in your life, as many Israeli parents say, is different from who you thought. What kind of mother does it make you? Lilach is confronted by that.”

For Gundar-Goshen, the psychological thriller genre functions as a metaphor for the mysteries of the human soul. “I love this genre so much. I find it to be the ultimate Trojan horse. It seems simple, clear, harmless, but once inside, you realise there is so much more there than you thought.”

Unsurprisingly, Gundar-Goshen’s writing is influenced by her work as a psychologist: her characters are sharply observed, their motivations, relationships and emotions scrutinised.

She believes that both professions come from the same origin, “which is this curiosity of what makes people be who they are and what enables a change. The same questions that lead me as a psychologist, lead me in my writing of the characters in my novels.”

Gundar-Goshen’s two professional roles may intertwine but what about the practicalities? I ask. What does her working week look like? “Right now, I have a baby who’s 14 months,” she says, “So, I can’t write anything longer than a text message that says, ‘Bring more diapers or we need bananas.’"

"I’m in the hospital [she works at Shalvata, a mental health hospital] three days a week and theoretically, when he’s old enough and I won’t need to change diapers every two minutes,” she jokes, “I’ll have two days to write. I miss writing.

"It’s the one thing that I’ve fallen out of but there’s a time for everything and now it’s for diapers. One day, it’ll be the time for literature.”

‘The Wolf Hunt’ (Pushkin Press) by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is published this week.

The author will also be appearing at a series of events in October: 

  • The Cheltenham Literature Festival on Sunday October 8

  • JW3 on 9 October: 

  • The London Literature Festival on October 27:

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive