Lavie Tidhar creates wonderfully vivid worlds in his books. Worlds where the strange and bizarre intertwine with the mundane, where history is slightly different and where Jewish culture and language permeate the tale. In ‘Unholy Land’, the Jews have a homeland in East Africa known as Palestina and the horrors of the holocaust did not come to pass.
But that is only one version of what may have happened. As little-know pulp author Lior Tirosh travels back home to Palestina from Berlin, reality and memories seem to warp. In Palestina, there are rumours of men who can travel between worlds and of plots to unravel the truth and the status quo. Lior Tirosh confuses his homecoming with one of his own detective stories while various powers manoeuvre mysteriously.
I was reminded in part of Dave Hutchinson’s ‘Fractured Europe’ books, where numerous kingdoms and countries co-exist and partly of something written by Christopher Priest, ‘The Adjacent’ particularly came to mind, where reality warps and changes as the story continues. All of these ingredients blend together to create a mesmerising tale.
‘Unholy Land’ follows Lior Tirosh as he returns to Palestina and plans to re-unite with his remaining family and take a break from the stress of life. Instead, he quickly becomes embroiled in several overlapping mysteries and soon confuses his own life, his mutable past and that of a detective in one of his own novels. It even seems that Lavie Tidhar himself is reflected in the fragmented aspects of Tirosh’s life.
At the same time, a security agent called Bloom is following Tirosh and a mysterious woman call Nur, who seems to know a lot about the fractures between worlds, weaving a complex path of intrigue and death. The various strands of the story are woven together in an intriguing way, not-quite overlapping, telling parts of the story in the first, second and third person and revisiting scenes from another point of view at a later time. It gives the whole thing a realistic, flawed outlook where the truth of what happened, of whether there is even a definitive answer to the question of truth, is left in doubt.
Lavie Tidhar adds a historical note at the end of the book, explaining the obscure historical events that inspired the novel, the modern politics of Israel and the author’s own experiences of growing up in that land. It is evident that these experiences are reflected in the story but, although controversial themes are invoked, this does not come across as a book with a message to preach but as an introspection on the vagaries of fate and the events that have steered history one way or another.
This was a thoroughly engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking novel which, like Lavie Tidhar’s previous book ‘Central Station’, provides a cross-section of a marvellous world, though in this case a less fractured picture than that previous book. Part physics, part mysticism, it conveys a truly compelling multicultural tale of discovery and mystery.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: Tachyon Publications. 288 page paperback. Price: $15.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-6169-6304-0)