A beautiful, engrossing novel about Palestine, set shortly before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It follows a sixty-something-year-old writer, Walid – who would seem to be based on the author himself – as he returns to Palestine for the first time in thirty-eight years, having been forcibly separated from his family by the occupation, and observes the ways in which his homeland, his family and his friends have changed, mostly for the worse. The Khan Younis where he spent his childhood has been lost, and many of his loved ones have met tragic ends. The novel is naturally scathing of Israel, of the daily humiliations meted out on the Palestinians, of the violence of the occupation, and the theft of the land in the first place, including Ashdod, where Walid was born.
It’s not a novel that dehumanises Israelis though, which is the role that the titular “lady from Tel Aviv”, Dana, has to play. Honestly I was expecting Dana to play a bigger role in the novel, what with the title and half the blurb being given over to her, but she is what she is. She’s someone fed up with the conflict, who wants peace, but isn’t political beyond that. I don’t really want to spoil her subplot, so I’ll leave it there…
The best part of this novel is the little things, in the observations of occupation. I get the sense that Walid is a thinly disguised version of al-Madhoun, that the novel Walid is writing represents this novel, and so on. Walid’s difficulty simply entering Israel was compelling reading, and rang true; I once knew someone, a Palestinian who’d grown up in exile, who tried to visit home but was interrogated at Ben Gurion airport for twelve hours and sent back to Australia. Al-Madhoun makes sure to contrast the difficulty Palestinian exiles and refugees have accessing home with the ease that all Jewish people in the world have, and so he should.
The main problem I had with this novel is that the plot didn’t seem very cohesive or unified; it was more like, “this happened, then this, then this, then this”. Admittedly, this makes more sense if you think of the novel as a fictionalised retelling of the author’s own experiences, but… it was narratively unsatisfying. Therefore I can’t say I “really liked it” (which is Goodreads' definition of four stars) but I heartily recommend it.
EDIT: I’m bumping my rating up to four stars; in retrospect I was too harsh on it for how much I liked it! Maybe the plot is a bit thin, but it it has many more compelling qualities.