I’ve been reading Lavie Tidhar books for quite some time now, and eagerly await each new arrival. Tidhar is a master at taking concepts that really shouldn’t work and crafting them into something uniquely brilliant. In Osama he depicts Bin Laden as a vigilante and in A Man Lies Dreaming, Hitler is imagined as a hapless private eye. Both of these devices could have been horrible messes but in Tidhar’s deft hands become compelling “state of the world” narratives. In his latest book, Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar once again tackles a difficult subject with a slightly off the wall premise and a universe that consists of tissue layers of reality.
If you’re new to Tidhar’s works I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you start here. The two novels I mentioned above, or, perhaps, Violent Century, may be better jumping off points to explore Tidhar’s craftsmanship. Nevertheless, you should definitely return to Unholy Land and 2016’s Central Station too.
Here are my five reasons to read Unholy Land.
1. Intriguing Premise.
As I said at the top of the review, Tidhar’s books always have at their heart a strong, often unusual premise. Whilst Unholy Land‘s premise isn’t quite in the same “You’re doing what?!” category as Osama and A Man Lies Dreaming, it does immediately capture the reader’s attention. Much like Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Tidhar imagines the existence of an alternative Jewish homeland, Palestina.
Drawing on the real-world possibility of a Jewish settlement in Africa, mooted in the early part of the 20th Century, Tidhar imagines what the world might have been like if the such a state had been set up. What follows is an alternate history where key events for history are different, but how much will things really change?
2. Layered Worlds.
I say “an alternate history” but the book has many. Layered worlds are often a feature of Tidhar’s books, in a manner not dissimilar to China Mieville’s The City and the City or Dave Hutchinson’s Europe series. Whilst the Palestina settlement is one reality in the novel, there are other intersecting realities, one of which is our own, but there are others in which further different decisions and events occur that affect the Jewish diaspora.
Central character Lior Tirosh, a novelist who seems to be an avatar of Tidhar himself (for example, he has a book called Osama to his name and written a story called Unholy Land), moves unwittingly between them, finding himself in a situation he can’t quite understand.
Using these narratives layers, Tidhar examines whether different decisions would have made the world a better place, or whether perhaps different tragedies and human follies would exert themselves in unexpected ways.
3. The Central Mystery.
Tidhar’s novels are categorized not only by their alternate realities and unexpected premises but also their central mysteries. Unholy Land is no exception. Whilst Tirosh is a novelist by trade, he is soon searching for answers in the manner of an experienced gumshoe. I always enjoy this mixture of Chandler and alternate reality and once again Tidhar delivers an intriguing who and whydunnit.
4. Gently Sardonic Humor.
Tidhar books often have a gentle humor to them that is not always evident at first. Whilst the themes within the books are often very hefty and serious, Tidhar uses humor to gently poke at the darker aspects of human folly. Unholy Land has a number of self-referential jokes within it and the whole book is suffused with a cynical humor about humanity’s ability to balls things up, no matter what point it starts from.
5. Alternate Reality or Reality?
As I mentioned in my previous 5 Reason review for Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files, I love it when my SFF has real-world parallels. Tidhar’s are more in your face than most, inevitable when you name-check Bin Laden and Hitler, and again Unholy Land fits this mold. The state of Palestina is surrounded on all sides by neighbors who wish to lay claim to the land it holds. The nation is in a constant state of low-level war with its bordering nations. Politicians from both sides are in a constant state of peace-brokering. Brokering that never comes to anything. Much like modern-day Israel, Palestina is building a wall to keep people out of the disputed territory.
The folly of wall building is well-examined in the novel. Ring-fencing, highlighting your differences, always blaming the other guy, making them the enemy rather than admit your own part in the conflict, all these are things that govern the politics of Unholy Land. Reading the novel, one can’t help but think that maybe Douglas Adams had it right. What the world really needs is a Point of View gun.
Unholy Land is another Lavie Tidhar novel based on a strong premise that goes outside of those generally found in mainstream science fiction. With gentle wit and strong alternate history, Tidhar pokes at the folly of humanity and wonders whether even if historical calamities are avoided, we’ll just come up with new ones to replace them. Threaded with themes of identity and belonging, Tidhar once again delivers an intriguing novel with multiple realities and hard-boiled detectives.
If you enjoyed this post do check out my other 5 Reasons to Read posts.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.