THE SERGEANTS’ TALE by Bernice Rubens


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Two British soldiers—one Jewish—are twisted up in espionage in British Palestine.

Never one for excess sentiment, Rubens (Nine Lives, 2004, etc.) allows emotions to flower somewhat in her sharp-edged, based-on-a-true-story romance that puts love and war at loggerheads. It’s 1947, and the British Mandate in Palestine is drawing to a close. International condemnation has grown louder as the British refuse to accept ship after ship of Jewish refugees, “turned back to the hell from which they had sailed.” A pair of British sergeants, David Millar and Will Griffiths, already conflicted about their morally dubious job of keeping the refugees from hitting the beach, are assigned an intelligence duty whereby they’ll gather information on the Jewish resistance, which is divided between the mostly nonviolent Hagannah movement and the terrorist Irgun group. Although easy duty at first (they get to wear civilian clothes and be their own bosses), the intelligence work starts to wear on David and Will in true shades-of-gray le Carré–fashion. Will realizes that one of the men he plays with at a jazz club may be in the resistance, and David, who falls in love with a Jewish woman, is torn that he mustn’t divulge his Jewish identity to her. Rubens zooms from her small, carefully laid-out tale of the sergeants to the larger backdrop of history, the brutal tit-for-tat campaign of Irgun bombings and British execution of Irgun prisoners, and the machinations of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, diametrically opposed resistance leaders. Just when the story seems to be settling into a rather easygoing routine, with the slow dissolution of the sergeants’ military ardor, they are sucked into a kidnapping scheme that will put their heads in nooses unless the British grant amnesty to Irgun operatives.

With her usual expert precision and swiftly assured strokes, Rubens cuts away the dross and leaves us with baroque emotions conveyed in a fine-tuned minimalism. Nerve-racking.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2005
ISBN: 0-349-11730-6
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Abacus/Trafalgar
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2005


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