An Arab Israeli man reckons with the mistake that determined the course of his life.
The narrator of Kashua’s (Native, 2017, etc.) latest novel is a writer, of sorts. He ghostwrites memoirs for the clients who seek him out—most of them elderly, most of them Jewish. Occasionally he inserts his own memories among their narratives. He himself is Arab and for most of the novel goes unnamed; eventually, though, a minor character asks, “Are you Saeed?” and he answers, “Yes.” Saeed grew up in Tira, a Palestinian village in Israel. At some point, something went wrong, and Saeed left for Jerusalem. Now, he and his wife and children live in Illinois, and it’s been almost 20 years since he’s seen the rest of his family. It’s Saeed’s mistake, whatever it was, that Kashua is primarily concerned with. He circles around it, revealing details only gradually. If he meant for this strategy to hold the reader in suspense, he isn’t entirely successful: The result feels too drawn out, as if we’ve been strung along for too long, with too little to show for it. Saeed’s mistake has to do with a short story he wrote years ago, and his wife, it turns out, was the primary victim. So it’s unfortunate that his wife, whose name is Palestine, never emerges as a fully-fledged character. Saeed has nothing more insightful to say about her than that “she’s beautiful, so beautiful,” and she never gets to speak for herself. The most moving parts of the book, in fact, don’t have to do with Saeed’s mistake at all. These are the descriptions of the prejudice and discrimination Saeed faces at the hands of his Jewish colleagues, a topic that Kashua has already written about, more effectively, elsewhere.
A rambling novel about regret strays too close, too often, to self-pity.