The Israeli-Palestinian conflict sits at the heart of Montreal-born novelist Emmanuel Kattan’s latest offering in translation. While Kattan frames his story as a genre mystery, the larger thematic ties to the Middle East crisis lend the book a literary quality.
Daniel Benzaken is a Jewish painter and professor of art history in Montreal who arrives in Jerusalem under a cloud of distress. His daughter Sara, in Jerusalem to pursue a graduate degree, has vanished with her Arab boyfriend, Ibrahim, under suspicious circumstances. Finding little solace from the detective assigned to the case, Daniel launches his own investigation and begins to unravel the mystery of what may have happened to his daughter.
Told mostly as one long flashback, the story alternates between a standard narrative and an epistolary structure involving past email exchanges between Daniel and Sara, and entries in Sara’s diary in the months leading up to her disappearance. What we learn is that she began dating Ibrahim after breaking up with a jealous Jewish boyfriend named Avner, who began stalking her after he found out she’d started seeing an Arab. There is another suspect in the case: Ibrahim’s cousin Tareq, a boy with whom Ibrahim was close growing up, but who has become deeply radicalized and is unhappy that his cousin is dating someone of Jewish heritage.
All of this is engaging, though the thematic connections in the story may strike some readers as a touch too obvious. Sara’s mother, dead from cancer, was a Muslim, and thus Sara has inherited both the culture of Islam from her and the culture of Judaism from Daniel. This turns Sara into a symbol of Israeli-Palestinian connectedness and strife, but perhaps a heavy-handed one.
Still, Kattan wins us over with the sheer strength of his prose and emotional range, especially in the last quarter of the novel. What starts out as a rather contrived metaphor about Israel and Palestine couched as a mystery eventually turns into something devastating – a beautiful reflection on love, loss, and the senselessness of violence