Review: A Grave in Gaza

Grave in Gaza, AMatt Beynon Rees, A Grave in Gaza

Omar Yussef, a middle-aged teacher at a school in Bethlehem, is accompanying his boss Magnus Wallender on an inspection of the UN schools in Gaza, along with James Cree, another UN official. Almost as soon as they cross the border, however, they are confronted with injustice and violence: a professor who exposed corruption at his university has just been arrested and will likely be killed, unless Omar can prevent it from happening. Meanwhile, a lieutenant in a Palestinian military group has just been killed, and the presumed culprit is part of an arms-smuggling organization called the Saladin Brigade. But when Omar speaks to the alleged murderer, he begins to wonder whether the man is actually guilty. As Omar and his colleagues investigate these issues, they realize that the two crimes might be connected. At the same time, they are drawn deeper and deeper into a rivalry between military leaders who are fighting for control of Gaza; as a result, their own lives may be in danger.

As with The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the strength of this book is its depiction of life in contemporary Palestine. Rees uses his journalistic background to portray the conflicts, corruption, and political turmoil of this region in an extremely vivid way. At the same time, he illustrates the lives of ordinary Palestinians with great sympathy, showing how they try to do their best in very difficult circumstances. Read as a mystery novel, the story isn’t particularly compelling; although Omar Yussef does solve the lieutenant’s murder, that investigation is secondary to his discovery of how the various crimes and acts of violence are linked together. I liked learning a little more about Omar Yussef’s past in this installment of the series, as well as seeing more of his friendship with the Bethlehem police chief. There are also a few new characters that I’ll be interested to follow in future books. Overall, this is a book and series I’d highly recommend for its setting, and I will probably seek out the third Omar Yussef mystery at some point.

Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Review: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

The Collaborator of BethlehemMatt Beynon Rees, The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Omar Yussef, a teacher at the Dehaisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, is a fussy, polite, middle-aged man with a combover. He’s the last person anyone would ever expect to make trouble, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of Bethlehem, where one wrong step (literally or figuratively) could place him and his family in lethal danger. But when a prominent Palestinian freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on whom you ask) is shot just outside his own home, Omar can’t help getting involved — especially when his friend George Saba, a Christian and therefore a convenient scapegoat, is arrested for the killing. Omar knows that George is innocent and even finds evidence proving that he could not have committed the crime. But Omar’s friend the police chief is unwilling to investigate the matter further, since clearing George’s name would anger the militant Palestinians who champion the dead man as a martyr. So Omar resolves to investigate on his own; but the more he digs into the events surrounding the murder, the more he risks his own life.

I don’t know if I can say I liked this book…it’s very dark and very serious, and “liking” doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to it. But I’m extremely glad I read this novel, because it introduced me to a setting and a conflict that I honestly know very little about. The book does a wonderful job of depicting everyday life in Bethlehem, where the threat of violence is omnipresent and where the voices of extremism are much louder than the voices of moderation and peace. I really appreciated that the book does not paint either Israelis or Palestinians as the “bad guys,” but rather focuses on the struggles of individual people to do the right thing (or not) in a terrible situation. This novel is technically a murder mystery, but I found the detective work to be the least interesting part of the story. The urgency of the plot comes not from the hunt for the killer, but from Omar’s race against time to save his friend George. Overall, I found this book a fascinating read and will probably seek out more mysteries featuring Omar Yussef.