I seem to be attracted to first novels, so when I saw the New York Times Book Review quote, “An astonishing first novel” on the cover of The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Beynon Rees, I picked it up for a look. A note in the front pages intrigued me, so I decided to substitute this book for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as my “place” selection in the What’s In a Name challenge. The intriguing note? “All the crimes in this book are based on real events in Bethlehem. Though identities and some circumstances have been changed, the killers really killed this way, and those who died are dead just the same.”
As first novels go, The Collaborator of Bethlehem isn’t bad. It’s not in the league of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, but it’s good, and I’m not sorry I bought it. The main character is Omar Yussef, a 50-something history teacher at a U.N. school in the West Bank. He used to drink heavily (despite being Muslim) and, as a result, feels his age daily. Because Omar Yussef tries to teach students to study issues and form their own opinions, he’s not the most popular figure with the local Palestinian activists; indeed, the headmaster of his school would like for him to resign keep things running smoothly. Omar Yussef refuses to give the headmaster satisfaction until one of his favorite former students, a Palestinian Christian now grown and with children of his own, is arrested for the murder of one of the leaders of the local Palestinian Martyrs Brigade. Omar Yussef knows his former student must be innocent, and takes a leave of absence from his job to investigate the murder on his own.
The plot is complex, the characters are very human, and the ending is not necessarily a happy one, but the story is compelling and kept my interest. The author is the former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time, and the depth of his knowledge and research showed. I learned a lot about the intricacies of the situation in Israel and the occupied areas.
Quality Rating: 8 out of 10. Well worth reading, though not what I would call a classic.
Audience Rating: Probably not for too young an audience. One of the deaths in the book is staged to look like a rape-murder, and there is a scene I can’t reveal without spoiling the book, that would probably frighten younger kids. High school kids could probably handle it, though I’m not sure they’d find the book as interesting as someone who has grown up through the various stages of Mideast conflict.