Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Assange, Robert Harris and Richard Beard.

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography

"Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and part Scottish novelist and ghostwriter Andrew O' Hagan ... [have] given birth to an unfinished draft ... published before its maturity under the wacky title The Unauthorised Autobiography," writes David Leigh in the Guardian's review. "The lack of a final edit does ... disservices to Assange's story. The narrative stops too abruptly ... It's padded out ... with unnecessary chunks of the cables themselves, which can be read elsewhere." Leigh concludes that "These marsupial memoirs of his seem unlikely to increase [Assange's] prospects of becoming the messiah of the information age. Maybe, sadly, even the reverse."

By contrast, Lloyd Evans writes in the Spectator that "the author of this book ... [has] produced a compelling portrait of a brave, complex, difficult, brilliant and essentially humane individual ... Assange is not easy to like but his intellectual gifts, his moral courage and his carelessness of his own physical safety make him impossible not to admire."

James Ball, in the New Statesman's review suggests that Assange's "desire to lash out against his enemies ... drains much of the immediacy from the book." Ball concludes that "this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting."

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Emmanuel Roman writes in the Guardian that "In ... Harris's latest thriller ... we are cast into the dystopic world of finance where nerdy hedge fund managers and their computers may be the modern embodiment of evil ... Computer programmes predict fear as a motivation, and ... [use] this information to short-sell stocks."

In the Scotsman, Stephen McGinty observes that Harris "calmly [lays] out ... that a man with a knife is ... nothing compared to the terror of knowing the true volatility and cluelessness of the current financial masters of the universe." Roman notes that the novel's "upshot may be about as believable as Jurassic Park but ... I may be overly familiar with what computers can and can't do."

McGinty describes Harris as "our literary Alfred Hitchcock ... Harris is a 'thriller writer', but in time his canon will be viewed as something far greater." Charles Moore, in the Telegraph, is similarly complimentary, finding The Fear Index "hugely enjoyable" and arguing that it has "a Dickensian potential for a great novel, even more thrilling than a thriller, about the way we live now." In the New Statesman's review, Alex Preston finds that The Fear Index delves "into the heart of a complex, abstract world without oversimplifying or seeming clunkingly didactic." Harris has "woven some fascinating subplots into the novel."

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

In the Observer, Tom Lee writes that, "The Bible says almost nothing about the life of Lazarus before and after he was raised from the dead. Richard Beard's fourth novel sets out to elaborate on what we do know from the Gospel of John." Adrian Turpin writes in the Financial Times that the novel "impressively spins an entire life story. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends, fellow exiles in Egypt ... Beset by a series of illnesses, [Lazarus] needs a miracle, but Jesus fails to respond."

Lee finds that, "The characters remain more or less the archetypes of biblical tale or myth, without psychological specificity or depth" and "the narration retains a plain, almost remote, quasi-biblical style ... At times, it drops into an essay-like register." For Turpin, although the book is "hardly as 'genre-bending' as the publishers suggest ... [it is] clever and original ... [and] keeps the reader guessing until the death- and beyond."

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism