The main character of Mischa Hiller’s novel Shake Off is Michel, a survivor of the Sabra Massacre in Lebanon in 1982. A child at the time, he is taken under the wing of Abu Leila and gradually trained in languages and spy tradecraft with the idea that eventually he would be able to aid a resurgence of Palestinian power. He has a lonely, secret life apart from the intimacy of others.
What I found most interesting about this novel was the Palestinian viewpoint. Until about fifteen years ago when I began investigating the subject in earnest, I was, like many Americans, likely to equate Palestinian with terrorist. My knowledge is refined now, however. I have eyes and judgment enough to see the players, as well as failures of leadership.
Nancy O’s review of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird shows how even an apolitical observer of Middle East history places the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila as a defining moment for radicalization of Arabs, Muslims, Lebanese, and Palestinians.
The story Hiller tells in this novel captures the confusion and uncertainty and despair of a young orphan in a refugee camp, and later his willingness, indeed his craving, to believe in kindness and love. It is crafted so that we cannot see the outcome, though the seeds are there if one reexamines the start of the novel.
The love interest of the young man, Helen of London, fascinates me. It seems obvious to me that she is an operative of some sort, but for whom and why, we never learn. With the long-legged Helen (Michel is clearly a leg man), Michel loses his learned restraints and becomes an ordinary man, the kind that cannot help but think with his genitals. I can forgive him that, I suppose, though I don’t think his enemies will. It turns out he is altogether too gullible in general, having come from an area of the world where disagreements often end in bloodshed.
This novel is the second of Hiller’s, the first being Sabra Zoo. Another, called Disengaged, is in the works, due out January 2015 in the UK. The writing is clear, the viewpoint unique, and the subject positively deadly. Watch for it.
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