Atir, Yiftach Reicher. “The English Teacher: A Novel”, Penguin, 2016.
A Psychological Spy-Thriller
After going to her father’s funeral, former Mossad agent Rachel Goldschmitt draws her entire bank account and disappears. However, when she makes a cryptic phone call to her former handler, Ehud, the Mossad sends him to track her down. He has no leads, yet he must retrace her career as a spy to figure out why she abandoned Mossad before she can do any damage to Israel. He soon discovers that after living under cover for so long, an agent’s assumed identity and her real one can blur, catching loyalty, love, and truth between them. This causes Ehud to question whether he ever knew Rachel at all.
Writer Yiftach Atir based his novel on his own experience in the Israel intelligence corps. I find it especially interesting that when I lived in Israel and served in the Israel Defense Forces, we were not privy to stories like this. We certainty never knew who worked in the Mossad. Here we read of the isolation that pervades the life of the spy long after their active existence is over and we read of the sacrifices of living a double life. We see how it works at the foundations of existence and how there is some truth in lies. Atir looks at the Mossad and writes of secrets and national morality as well as the moral actions that operatives perform for their country and their own exploitation.
Rachel is at the center of the book and we become very aware of the loneliness she suffers especially when she becomes an English teacher in an Arab nation with a very big secret. It all begins with the death of her father in London. With that she no longer has family and her disappearance is worrisome to the Mossad because of all of the
state secrets she holds. Through Rachel, author Atir is able to transfer those feelings of loneliness and fear he felt during his own years of service. We read a great deal about the life of a spy and how it begins and perhaps how it might end. We see Rachel’s frustrations and distrust that builds between her and the agency and that she really needs some of the normality of life if she is to live as a real person and have a bit of happiness. We become truly aware of the toll of living a lie and see that even with the best intentions, those who are part of Rachel’s life have a difficult time. The sacrifices that the members of the Mossad make are tremendous.
With Rachel’s disappearance, everyone wants to know if she has become a traitor to Israel and sold secrets to the enemy. Most the story is told by Ehud but we also become aware of what is going on in Rachel’s mind and life.
The narrative is told primarily from Ehud’ point of view as he shares in great detail the four years that he spent serving as Rachel’s handler. He shares not only how he trained and prepared Rachel for her missions, but also the intimacy that developed between the two of them. We see early on that Ehud’s feelings for Rachel have gone beyond their relationship as handler/agent. As a spy, Rachel had to learn to not only adapt to adopting new identities, but also to repress her feelings and emotions and this is very difficult to do. We read a lot about theday-to-day operations of a spy’s life and the ways that they are trained.
The plotline is complicated because Ehud admits to being in love with his much younger operative, the spy posing as an English teacher. The reality we have here is that agents face their psyche and this can cause permanent damage. Once I began reading I realized that I was not going anywhere until I finished the book and even then what I had read stayed with me. Atir gives us a beautiful but heartbreaking story that really makes us think.