The first novel by Vancouver-based playwright Michael Springate is the latest in a small wave of fiction focusing on the fraught relations between the West and the Middle East. A small wave, not because the subject isn’t a defining aspect of the zeitgeist, but because it requires extraordinary daring and intelligence to tackle it. Springate succeeds in so far as he deftly humanizes the headlines, but stumbles because the ideological nuance he tries to bring to the story feels tokenistic.
It’s 2008 in Montreal, where Elena, a Manitoban raised by a devout Christian, seeks to make a fresh start. She meets Egyptian migrant Mahfouz, whose parents seem to accept their son’s relationship with this non-Muslim. Adding to what is initially presented as an easy cultural and religious mix are Rachel and Josh, Elena’s Jewish employers. The novel’s first half is a gentle, even beautiful story of slow-ripening love and understanding, as two lost souls begin to put down roots together despite their differences.
When Mahfouz travels to Cairo on family business, however, the mood shifts. In Montreal there’s heated discussion about Israel, Palestine, and terrorism. In Cairo, Mahfouz encounters characters in sympathy with Muslim groups opposed to the status quo. Battle lines are drawn when Mahfouz is arrested on suspicion of terrorist activity; the same fate befalls his father in Montreal.
The novel’s second half is problematic. While the increasing use of dreams, visions, and even an apparent psychic connection reflects the characters’ psychological trauma, these elements sit uncomfortably with the grounded narrative style that preceded them. The main problem, however, is that an intimate and persuasive tale of innocents crushed under post-9/11 realpolitik is paradoxically weakened by Springate’s attempt to develop context. This attempt amounts to hostile snippets of counter-argument: Rachel’s pro-Israel polemics marginalize her as a character; a government lawyer describing secretive, extra-judicial national security tactics is all heartless expediency.
Given the central story’s genuine insight, readers seeking greater understanding of the current geopolitical conundrum will likely feel dissatisfied by the novel’s overreach.