Sunday 25 February 2018

Thriller treads carefully in political hotbed

Lorraine Courtney

Searching for Ami

John O'Keeffe

Red Rock Press. £13.99

A handful of locations possess the kind of cultural aura whereby the very invocation of their name evokes a mass of emotions and associations. John O'Keeffe's debut thriller hits the ground running, opening with a suspenseful attack on a settlement in Israel's illegally annexed Golan Heights. Here's the plot: Harry, the novel's hero, works for the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service. His wife and her twin sister die in the assault on the settlement. His daughter Ami goes missing during the incident and this is the tale of Harry's quest to find her.

Heavy, potentially volatile subject matter, then, but the book is surprisingly easy to read and very sensitive to political realities of occupation. Harry is vehemently opposed to these settlements or colonial fortresses that have no right to exist under international law. For the Israeli state, they serve a practical purpose; they occupy and encroach upon more and more Palestinian land.

Bibi, the Israeli prime minister, has a walk on part, offering his condolences to Harry, "when all along he has been the first one encouraging these settlers. Now somebody else is going to suffer too." There is an honest representation of Israeli violence and impunity: "The Israelis always retaliated, in some manner. Retribution had to follow -- in the ancient custom of the region. An eye for an eye."

Can a Dublin GP cut it as a thriller writer? This is a well crafted book with moments of real suspense and it manages to fit in a great deal without feeling crowded.

The plot twists keep coming, and incorporate betrayals, deception, Donnybrook Garda Station and an enigmatic blonde "terrorist". The characters are sharply drawn even if the other intelligence officers sometimes descend into Chandleresque imitations. The only weakness is O'Keeffe's often awkward prose, although he generally avoids the assaults on sense and grammar that cram an average Dan Brown paragraph.

O'Keeffe takes risks and overturns apple carts to produce a thriller that surprises, entertains and illuminates. It ends with a conversation about Al Nakba or the Catastrophe of 1948. Ami confronts her father about how Israel ethnically cleansed Palestine to make room for itself: "Bulls**t. They didn't leave, they were driven out."

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