Regular readers of this blog might remember my review of Sabra Zoo, Mischa Hiller‘s excellent debut novel based around the 1982 massacre in Sabra Camp. I concluded that review by saying how much I was looking forward to Hiller’s next book.
Well, his next book is here now, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Shake Off is set in 1989 and is narrated by Michel, a young PLO agent living undercover in London as a student. Sabra rears its head here, too: Michel is both a victim and a creation of that event, which claimed the lives of his family and led to his adoption by a PLO operative who arranged his education and later his training in espionage. Now he lives alone in a bedsit, addicted to painkillers and shunning human contact. His life, from what he does to how he lives, has essentially become a complex coping mechanism for his past. The enforced solitude and paranoia of his work create a noise that blocks out the past from his days in the same way the codeine gets him through the nights:
So you have to be on continual alert: every public place is a potential meeting place; every alley or public toilet could be a dead-letter drop; every street, store and restaurant needs to be assessed for its counter-surveillance potential. You need to be constantly on the look-out for places to cache money and documents. Everyday objects must be considered potential concealers of microphones or cameras. Every person you meet could either be an agent wanting to get close or a possible recruit to the cause. Every woman that talks to you wants to trap you with the promise of sex. Every postcard has a hidden meaning. Everybody behind you could be following you, and it is your job to shake them off.
But while Michel is good at what he does—and we get plenty of insights into the tricks of his trade—he is still an unwitting pawn, and the comparison that kept coming to mind was Alfred Hitchcock. Michel is very much a Hitchcock innocent, drawn into a murky underworld that he shouldn’t have anything to do with—even if that drawing-in has taken place years before the story is set. The story too has a Hitchcockian feel to it: the tense but witty set-pieces involving counter-espionage in Foyle’s on the Charing Cross Road, or the move from the London of the opening chapters to a climax set in the wilds of Scotland. The novel as a whole feels like one of Hitchcock’s better films, and I doubt that the cinematic appeal of the book is entirely coincidental. Hiller certainly knows his cinema—his screenplay for Sabra Zoo won the European Independent Film Festival script competition.
That said, it doesn’t do this book justice to simply praise it as a cinematic book, or an embryonic movie. The writing is strong and confident, even when the narrator is not: Michel and his world are vividly evoked. Hiller is, I think, an excellent writer. Sabra Zoo went down well, and Shake Off is getting positive reviews absolutely everywhere. Well-written enough to please the serious reader, and fast-paced and engaging enough for the beach (if summer ever comes), Shake Off deserves to do very well.