A prisoner is held for more than a decade in the Israeli desert while, elsewhere, a general in a coma hallucinates about his past life and a young man works to fund the Palestinian resistance.
Englander’s (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, 2012, etc.) latest novel is an odd amalgam: part political thriller, part romance, part absurdist farce, it never quite settles into the story it wants to tell. First, there’s Prisoner Z, who’s been held for 12 years in an undisclosed location in Israel’s Negev Desert. His only human contact has been with his guard. Then, there are flashbacks to Prisoner Z’s time hiding out in Paris. An American intelligence operative, he’s compromised Israeli secrets, and the authorities have it in for him. In the meantime, he starts up a romance with a waitress and they dash around Europe together. There’s also the General, an infamous Israeli leader who’s been in a coma for years; Ruthi, the General’s former assistant and current caretaker; Ruthi’s son, who happens to serve as Prisoner Z’s guard; and Farid, a young Palestinian in Berlin who’s working to fund his brother’s anti-settlement activities. Chapters alternate among these various threads. Unfortunately, Englander fails to fully weave them together. His tone is uneven—sometimes he strains toward humor, sometimes toward drama, without quite reaching either one. The humor sags, and the political intrigue doesn’t quite add up. If it’s a farce, it’s an uneasy one. Toward the end, Englander introduces a second romance, and this one feels rushed, tacked on like a donkey’s tail. Still, there are moments of fine writing throughout.
An uneasy blend of political intrigue, absurdity, and romance struggles to establish a steady, never mind believable, tone.