Murder and Intrigue in Mandate Palestine
A Palestine Affair
By Jonathan Wilson
Pantheon Books, 272 pages, $23
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Jonathan Wilson’s new novel, “A Palestine Affair,” opens, quite spectacularly, as Mark Bloomberg, a painter, and his gentile American wife, Joyce, having just made love in their new Jerusalem home, go outside to their garden. A softly moaning, bleeding man in Arab dress rushes toward Mark, hugs him, then crashes to the ground dead, pinning Mark beneath him. The man is Jacob De Groot, a Dutch Jewish poet who came to Palestine as a journalist, and his murder radically alters the lives of nearly everyone in the novel.
Though no one in charge really wants to know who the murderer was — it is unofficially pinned on a teenage Arab boy — an investigation does ensue, and it is the first of this novel’s many points of intrigue.
Set in l924, Wilson’s gripping new novel follows six months in the lives of some half dozen characters, most of whom have migrated to British Mandate Palestine to escape the pain of their personal or professional lives in England. Several characters are reeling from the psychic wounds of the First World War. For them, as for European Jews who immigrated to Palestine after the Second World War, the ancient land represents a chance for a new lease on life, one hopefully unhaunted by the tragic European past. But haunted their lives remain.
Mark, to whom the reader is first introduced, is burned out emotionally and professionally. He rues his emotional numbness and his inability to love his wife Joyce, which he senses is the result of one devastating loss too many. Life in England was unbearable for him: His last art show was a dismal failure, his closest friends were killed in the war and his mother’s death six years after the war’s end brought back their ghosts. He is encouraged by his wife — whose ardent Zionism he considers “foolish but insignificant” — to depart London for a new life in Palestine.
But Joyce has her own ulterior motive for the suggestion. She aspires to cure her marital woes by relocating, pinning all her hopes on a Palestine she has never visited. A sexy, energetic former art student who moves from passion to passion with disarming ease, Joyce is ripe for adventure and, yes, romance — and she gets both in spades.
In fact, of all the characters who undergo transformations during the novel’s half year, Joyce, a frustrated, tragically flawed woman, experiences the most radical changes.
“A passionate dabbler with a long history of passing enthusiasms,” she also hoped that moving to Palestine would help her “achieve a genuine accomplishment.” But Jerusalem is not exactly all that it was promised to be in the comradely Zionist meetings she frequented in London. She “almost wished that she had religion to provide a home for her excess of feeling. And she so much wanted to do something here. It was frustrating. She missed the London meetings with their thrilling sense of urgency and companionship,” where “the walls were covered with posters of sunny Palestine. But here she was, in the place, and her Zionism was quickly becoming a lonely thing.”
Joyce’s loneliness is quickly relieved by the much younger Robert Kirsch, the policeman who arrives at her house to investigate the murder. Kirsch is ripe for seduction, and Joyce proves to be a fabulous and tireless seductress. With the exception of Joyce, most of the characters here who make Palestine their home do so for reasons having little to do with heartfelt Zionism. Kirsch has left England in part to escape his family’s intractable gloom over his brother, killed in the war. His Palestine adventure seemed to him on par with a trip to Ceylon, or for that matter, any outpost of the empire. “He hadn’t thought about the Jews much at all; he’d been thinking about himself, his family, and the girlfriend he didn’t really love, and finally, the prospect of decent weather.”
Wilson is unusually qualified to write a knowledgeable novel about the British in Palestine under the Mandate. A British Jew who spent many years in Israel, Wilson is the author of two other books of fiction, chair of Tufts University’s English department and has always been a perceptive writer worth reading. His deft portrait of 1920s Jerusalem and its diverse, bickering inhabitants is complemented by realistically flawed characters whose misguided behavior in Palestine comes to make almost perfect sense.
Susan Miron is a harpist. Her CD of Scarlatti sonatas has just been released by Centaur Records.