The English Teacher
By: Yiftach Reicher Atir
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
After attending her father’s funeral, former Mossad agent Rachel Goldschmitt empties her bank account and disappears. But when she makes a cryptic phone call to her former handler, Ehud, the Mossad sends him to track her down. Finding no leads, he must retrace her career as a spy to figure out why she abandoned Mossad before she can do any damage to Israel. But 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. In the midst of a high-risk, high-stakes investigation, Ehud begins to question whether he ever knew his agent at all.
In The English Teacher, Yiftach R. Atir drew on his own experience in intelligence to weave a psychologically nuanced thriller that explores the pressures of living under an assumed identity for months at a time.
I came across this book randomly–either from a newsletter from Penguin or a related book website or from Twitter–and the premise and the fact that it was translated from Hebrew was what caught my attention. It sounded like a fascinating read so I picked it up.
(This isn’t the book cover of my edition/the North American edition but I couldn’t find a hi-res version of the book cover I have)
I admit, when I first read the premise of the book, I missed the last bit that said that the author drew on his own experience in the field to write this novel; it wasn’t until I read the foreward introduction that I learned a bit more of the backstory behind this novel, how it was written, and what it went through to reach publication. Which made the overall reading experience much more intriguing.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this is most certainly not it 😛 This book is more akin to a John le Carre novel; despite of the nature of their job, the high risks and high profiles of the targets involved, the day-to-day operations and the unfolding of these missions are much quieter, more about waiting, the psychological elements that these agents undergo amidst carrying out these missions. Much of the novel is told in hindsigt by Ehud, Rachel’s handler, which took a bit of getting used to as the POVs switched from Rachel’s to Ehud’s, and then Ehud’s ongoing narrative to another Mossad agent in their collective attempts to find Rachel. From there it goes back and forth between past and present, complete with Ehuh’s hindsight reflection on what was really going on with Rachel–if he really knew–as well as an assessment of his own complicated feelings towards her. This is the highlight of the novel: that examination of what it’s like to undergo a deep undercover mission, the training and stress involved, and the psychological reprecussions of taking on such a role in dangerous places. Like the characters, the reader also doesn’t quite get a sense of who Rachel is underneath all the training, all of the conflicting feelings and goals running through her head.
Having said that, it does make for a detached read in part that yes, it’s a slow burn so be prepared to sort of clamp it down and follow Ehud’s trip down memory lane in establishing Rachel’s training, her first missions, what shaped her as an agent before she went deep undercover into a country that is never really mentioned by name. It takes a while before you start seeing where perhaps she started questioning why she was doing what she was doing and what led, more or less, to the breaking point. But what also makes it a detached read is just all of the characters; while following their day-to-day operations and figuring out Rachel’s mindset amidst all of her missions, I never warmed to any of them. I felt sorry for them, especially with the way matters turned out in the end.
So in the end, I found The English Teacher to be an intriguing read: informative and fascinating in its glimpse into the mind of an undercover agent, but because of the nature of the story and setting it can be a very slow and detached read. Fans of John le Carre’s novels will definitely want to check this out for thrillers of a more contemporary setting.