“The English Teacher” – Yiftach Reicher Atir

Mossad does a lot of things, including recruiting pretty British female spies with minimal personalities, making them do some vague undercover work and creating quite a few plot holes in a book that could have been a lot better. 

Recently, I had to attend a (fairly boring) training/contract renewal session at the head office of one of the companies for which I work. The good news about this was that it brought me quite close to Shinjuku and to what is left of Kinokuniya’s Takashimaya Southern Terrace store – namely, their huge foreign books section.

It was tough, buying just one novel for myself, but I eventually settled on Yiftach Reicher Atir’s “The English Teacher”. Being a teacher of English as a second language myself, the title drew me in at once. Then I discovered that it concerned the undercover work of a female Israeli spy, and that is always entertaining. Then, to top it off, I read that the author was an Israeli man. I don’t think I’ve read any Israeli novels before so that there was some interesting diversity right there. 

There was a thing, a couple of years ago, about how many people own fiction primarily written by men and how that influences us, complete with encouragement for readers, whatever their gender, to read more female authors. Yeah. I didn’t relate to that at all, because I have the opposite problem. I think I need to read more male writers and hear from more male narrators, frankly. I felt a bit wary about the fact it was a man writing a female point of view, because that doesn’t always go well, but I dismissed this. There were too many other points in the blok’s faculty. I was sold.

So, the titular character is Rachel, a British national who is an agent for theIsraeli  intelligence agency, Mossad. Her estranged father has just passed away and she has discovered that he was aware of her role all along, and this is the last straw for her. She decides that she has had enough of keeping secrets and lying, and decides to disappear. Before she does, though, she makes one final, cryptic phone call to her old handler, Ehud. This sparks a frantic chase by intelligence to track her down before she discloses any of the state secrets to which she is privy.

From there, the story unfolds in two voices. In the present, Ehud brainstorms and retells all that he can remember of Rachel to his own old boss. In the past, we get Rachel’s own viewpoint of what unfolds in her life as she becomes an agent, is sent out into the field, carries out various quintessential spy errands and, on her longest and most defining mission in an unnamed Arab city, ultimately falls in love with one of the locals.

It becomes clear early on that it is all but impossible for Rachel’s disappearing act to end well, and there is a degree of inevitability to the conclusion. The structure of the story means that we, the readers, can take a pretty good guess as to what she is doing in the present well before the intelligence agency can. Despite that, it still hits hard and I found myself quite heavy-hearted after finishing, not just because of what happened to Rachel but also for the… collateral damage… that I didn’t predict quite so easily.

I want to like this book. There are so many intriguing components to it! But it didn’t quite work for me and a lot of this is to do with the character of Rachel herself, or rather how she is depicted. Despite the fact that close to half the book is told from her perspective, I still felt like I didn’t know her or what the hell was motivating her. I want to say this is a master storytelling trick, to make her remain as unknowable to the reader as she is to the intelligence personnel trying to track her down. It’s part of the wanting to like it, though, because for all that it is third person, we are still very much in Rachel’s head. I’m left to conclude that what is there is supposed to explain her. And it doesn’t.

Even when the viewpoint had switched to Rachel, I still felt like I was looking at her through the lens of a man. I’ve read mentions of the possibility of this being a translation problem, but it’s still hard to accept, especially since we don’t get to really get Rachel. Without the men in her life, she doesn’t have a lot of definition. There was the Electra-complex daddy issues. Then there was Ehud falling in love with her, though I really felt like everyone involved in that one needed to go back and reconsider love versus lust. And, of course, there was Rashid, with whom she fell in love and who somehow defined everything forever after.

The book’s strongest moments are in the depictions of Rachel training to be a spy in the past and the final scenes, particularly the brutal and abrupt departure from the unnamed Arab city where she has spent most of her time. Outside of that, there is a fair chunk of this book that is just frustrating and we don’t get enough important questions answered to give Rachel the depth of character needed to hold this book together.

Some of the blame for this, or so I assume, is explained away in the disclaimer at the very beginning of the book, which reveals that it has been vetted by various levels of Israeli intelligence and that, ambiguously, this is the real account of something that never happened. If we are being generous, we might dismiss the various plot holes on the basis of this. On a less generous note, though, I wonder to what extent this really led to a dearth of decent explanations and to what extent it might be more of a clever marketing ploy.

I find myself wondering what would have made this novel work for me. It took me longer than ideal to read this book and, based on the reviews of people who loved it, I think I would have found it more enjoyable and more readily forgiven problems if I had read it in one rapid burst instead. Perhaps the resolution of whatever translation issue made the voices of Ehud and Rachel so similar would have been helpful too, or I might have been more forgiving of the issue if I better understood it (as I’m inclined to be with translated Japanese works, for example). Perhaps the biggest one, though, is if Rachel’s passion was not for Rashid alone but for the life she had in the unnamed Arab city more generally. That’s something I could find a lot more believable but instead, nope, it’s just the bloke she’s into and the rest of her life there actually feels a bit surreal and dull. Her one friend is tokenistic and the observation that she even actually likes teaching English is relegated to a one sentence note from Ehud near the very end.

I didn’t hate this novel. It was interesting enough and, despite being a bit tempted to give up on it in the middle, I made it to the end and didn’t regret it. But I definitely didn’t love it, either, and I find myself still frustrated with it now.

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