Femme Fatale and Fata Morgana, Too

"Piccadilly South," by Adiva Geffen, Zmora Bitan, 383 pages, NIS 78

I flew to New York with a stopover in Istanbul armed with a copy of Adiva Geffen's novel, "Piccadilly South." I fingered the elegant cover, featuring the doorknob of a hotel room. As I stroked the realistic-looking knob, it seemed to protrude a little from the page. I touched it every time I opened the book. I wonder what this book thinks of itself, I thought to myself.

Next to an attractive photo of the author on the back cover is the following: "Lori Sakniel ... decides to be a bad girl ... She has a fabulous suite all to herself. A gorgeous guy has been spied around the hotel ..." Following that is a recommendation from Amnon Jackont: "When such an outpouring of desire veers out of control in the heart of a male-dominated desert town - anything can happen." With endorsements like that, a burst of fresh air fills my lungs and I know this is the perfect travel book for me.

"If someone had told me that in the middle of a teacher-training seminar my private mini-volcano would erupt from its dormancy, I would say it was about as likely as an ice-skating competition in the desert in mid-August." So begins the book, with an opening line that wouldn't shame a Hollywood blockbuster. From here, the plot unfolds, fast-paced, surprising, sad and funny.

When I began to tire of Sakniel's bold adventures, I discovered a new interest: the character of Lori Sakniel. She becomes more intriguing as you go along. Gradually, she takes over the plot, which fades into the background, and wins over the reader. We forgive her for all her nonsense; we become protective of her; we fall head over heels in love with her. And falling in love at my age is dangerous. After years as an actress, I have this way of over-identifying with others.

Lori, a Bible teacher married to Rafi Sakniel, who comes from a family of genteel Turkish optometrists, discovers that she has a well-developed adventurous streak. She drives like a maniac, puts a gun to someone's head, threatens to kill him, speaks in rhyme, jumps over fences at night dragging along her six-year old son, Uri, squirts ketchup on the light-colored upholstery of a new jeep, and snips the fox-tail collar off the coat of an irritating woman she calls "Squirrel-face."

The fact that my Turkish Airlines discount ticket was taking me straight to the birthplace of Rafi Sakniel's parents further intensified my involvement. Identifying with the James Bond atmosphere of the book, I lost my passport and visa, and only swift action on the part of our consul in Istanbul, Amira, saved me undue embarrassment. And, of course, I couldn't help falling in love with the slim-figured, sharp-witted consul who appeared like an angel, in the same way that Lori Sakniel falls in love with Jasmine Schund, a photographer from Be'er Sheva, "who looked like seduction personified, as beautiful as a sunset in the desert and just as illuminating."

Overlooking a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus, I discovered the secrets of the Sakniel family, with "its six generations of photographed brides on the wall and its warm caress of wallpaper and tulle and furniture with real gold knobs, smuggled out of Istanbul and meeting up with all kinds of trouble along the way."

Hilarious situations

What is it about Lori Sakniel that is so powerful? Her life has not been easy. Her mother, who was mentally ill, died when she was a child. She named her daughter Lori after her favorite poet, Lorca. One day, she tells Lori there are frogs in her bed, stops talking and dies. The child is brought up by Grandma Shosh, an incredibly optimistic person who marries at the age of 80 for love.

That's on her mother's side. The father is out of the picture. Being an orphan on a kibbutz, a place for orphans who have parents, is an impossible ordeal that leaves her, at the age of 30, tense and "as sharp-clawed as a cat," to quote Yoav, the man she goes off with on a new adventure at the end of the book. The sharp contrast between the pretty, left-wing kibbutznik, with her cropped hair and slim figure, and the men of Be'er Sheva - educators, politicians and petty criminals - gets her into the most hilarious situations.

What saves Lori, after such a difficult childhood, is her talent. She teaches underprivileged kids and is brilliant at what she does. Her ability to reach the most detached, looniest characters and get the most out of them is a rare skill.

After failing as the wife of the Turkish optometrist, "Rafi Sakniel, bastard of Israel," she joins a visual-theater group in Yeruham. They are putting on a biblical play, and Bible is what she's good at. She writes an amusing script for them and makes something out of nothing. "It's so much fun here," she says. "We're like one big family. We live together and share everything. Dreams, fears, joys." Almost like a kibbutz, although this is Yeruham - even further away than Be'er Sheva. It makes you curious to find out what she will do there.

The actors appreciate Lori's talents and call her their "fata morgana." Certainly a step up from her Turkish brother-in-law, who says things like: "What do you mean `you think,' or `you don't think'? Leave the thinking to those who are supposed to think." She also moves up a notch with her new partner, a handsome, sexy, kind-hearted doctor with a "wicked mind," who laughs even in traffic jams. The kind of guy you never feel cold next to. With a man like that, it's fun to run off to Yeruham, far away from the whole world.

Geffen's writing is pretty wicked, too. Lori says anything she feels like saying, and her big mouth keeps getting her into trouble. Bible teachers, it turns out, are not always so prim and proper. With her highly original style, Geffen reveals the tragi-comic outlook of her protagonist: "Most of the year, the trees here are yellow and dusty and droopy. They catch diseases and are glad to pass them on. And on top of that, they catch fire easily. The few drops of rain that fall, usually at the end of March, are hardly enough to keep them going. If a tiger or a cheetah ever wandered into this forest, they'd end up crucified on a telephone pole. As the old saying goes, for all the trees, all you see is the sign."

With great charm, Geffen describes Lori's love for her son, and even more so, his love for her. The dramatic moments are never suffocating. Even when the pain is greatest - "It hurts when I breath, when I swallow, when I think. It hurts to live. My whole being aches" - something funny or silly will pop into her head, like "radish and toast, here comes Grandma Shosh."

I finished the book on the plane back to Tel Aviv. I told the stewardess I didn't feel well, and if she didn't find somewhere for me to lie down, I would faint on the spot - another trick I learned from "Tanya's daughter, Lorika," as she was known on the kibbutz. She didn't move me to first-class, as I had planned, but lay me down in the "prayer corner," between two ultra-Orthodox boys and a barefoot Muslim. The Turkish stewardess, a sweetheart, brought me a pillow and a blanket, and I settled in with my book, enchanted to the very end.

Lori Sakniel, who dreams of writing a best-seller, is constantly trying out passages of passionate prose for her future novel. Maybe I'll write a best-seller, too, about life with a certain blue-eyed actor of Georgian-Bulgarian descent. And if I could - that is, if the ethics people and Adiva Geffen would let me - I'd lift the whole ending of "Piccadilly South" and move it, en bloc, to my book. "Bon appetit, ma petite."

Sandra Sadeh is an actress.