I received an ARC of this book from the publishing company Tachyon Publications in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar is a highly inventive mindfuck of a book, but one I wish had been more fleshed out.
The story is set in an Alternate Universe Jewish homeland called ‘Palestina’, located in East Africa. (This is based on a real early 20th-century plan, “the Uganda Scheme”, where a part of British-colonised East Africa would be made into a country for Jewish people.) Lior Tirosh is a SFF pulp-fiction author who had emigrated from Palestina to Europe but is now returning. Things aren’t going well back home: tensions are high between the Jews and the Africans, with occasional terrorist attacks and a huge wall to keep out refugees under construction. When Tirosh finds out his niece, who’d been protesting the wall, has gone missing, he too gets caught up in the larger conflict.
This book is a weird, twisty mess that I think will be right up a lot of people’s alley. Although, to be honest, the twistiness is making this review hard to write: partway through, Unholy Land changes from just Alternate Universe to have more sci-fi elements — and I think it’s funner to just go in blind. Note: the meta elements, e.g. the author’s and main character’s initials, professions, and very, very broad life stories mirroring each other, is deliberate. The POVs chosen are also fun. There’s standard third-person for Tirosh — and then also a first-person from the secret agent shadowing him (and a second-person later too).
However, putting those elements aside, as with most Alternate Universes, the similarities and differences to our worlds push the reader off-kilter in a delightful way. Palestina’s bloody relationship with the original inhabitants is depressingly familiar; the kind German nurse with a neat little swastika patch on her uniform is not. Nevertheless, the world is described convincingly enough that it’s easy to slip right in:
Soon they were stuck in traffic, going slow, radios blaring outside: kwasa-kwasa music from the Congo, kwaito from Johannesburg, and Malawi reggae, intermixed with klezmer, orchestral music, and the latest Europop hit. Tirosh took it all in. He was home again, and it felt good.
Thematically speaking, the book obviously primarily explores the question of a Jewish homeland. There’s empathy for the European Jews of early 20th-century Europe, but there’s equally a sharp critique of Israel’s brutal policies. I wouldn’t say the conclusions Tidhar draws were particularly eye-opening for me, but it’s definitely intriguing to see how the issue can be explored through SFF. As I mentioned above, another important question is there in part through the “meta” aspect: to what extent history can change through some decision and to what extent are certain paths inevitable?
However, although I enjoyed the concepts in Unholy Land a lot, I felt it needed more space to really hit its potential. There’s a lot of things happening in 288 pages; the climax, in particular, did not feel as hard-hitting as it could have been. There’s tons of tiny details put in (I ended up googling a lot of Jewish history and mysticism — basically everything mentioned is “real” in that sense, not made up by Tidhar). But I think it would have been great to see all of it, from the slightly abrupt plot developments to the theme exploration to those tiny allusions, get a bit more space to breathe.
Altogether, this is a very concept and theme-oriented work, and the concept is strong enough that I recommend checking it out. I recommend the book especially for:
- Fans of the Alternate Universe genre
- Can this book be considered New Weird? It gave me some New Weird vibes anyway
- Fans of China Mieville’s The City & the City
- People interested in Jewish history and mysticism
- Fans of noir mysteries