This novel has a terrifically compelling premise. In an alternate world, instead of settling in Israel, disenfranchised Jews are given a homeland by the British government in East Africa. I have to admit that I brought some expectations and hopes into the reading of Unholy Land because I had recently finished reading the superb novel Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which posits the establishment of a homeland for native-born whites and freed slaves in central Africa. Shawl’s book goes deep into the lives of the characters, their backgrounds, their motivations, and their dreams, so that the reader becomes profoundly invested in the story as it sweeps forward through decades and generations. I was expecting something similar from Tidhar: a comprehensive look at a unique and fascinating society.
Tidhar, however, takes the different approach of action and adventure. Thus the pace of the novel is rapid, but the characters are not explored in depth. In fact, they remain little-understood enigmas rushing pell-mell through one crisis after another, diving and sliding through multiple universes whose significance and histories they do not comprehend. It makes for an entertaining chase through an East African backdrop reminiscent of present day Israel and Palestine, but leaves little time to become invested in the characters or the society to which they may or may not belong.
One of the strengths of the novel is its attention to background details such as the flora, fauna, sights, and smells of the African towns and countryside. Tidhar has lived in Africa and in Israel, and he gives these elements impressive verisimilitude. It’s also always refreshing to read speculative fiction stories set in countries and cultures that are not the United States. Yet as I mentioned, Tidhar only skims the surface of the fascinating society he has created in the frantic rush of his characters to avoid doom and destruction. There is also no mention of why or how these strange parallel universes exist – which I suppose is fine, as enigmas and mysteries have always existed and will probably continue to turn up as we further explore the universe.
One aspect of the book that didn’t work for me and in fact I found annoying is the way that Tidhar switches between first, second, and third person when he focuses on the three main characters. Rather than serving any particular purpose for plot, style, or characterization, it’s just there. I think the story would have been easier to follow without this contrivance. Instead of immersing me further, it jarred me out of the continuity so that sometimes I struggled to follow what was going on. I’m not saying it’s wrong generally to mix these points of view; I’ve used the device myself in short stories. I’m just saying that it doesn’t work here in this novel. I recall the great master of stylistic flourishes such as multiple tenses and points of view, Robert Silverberg. There was a time during the New Wave in science fiction in the late 60s and early 70s when it seemed that most of the stories he published were complex stylistically, and yet there was always a reason for the embellishments and they always made the stories easier to grasp, not more difficult.
All in all, Unholy Land is a flawed yet very entertaining book, still well worth reading in spite of its defects.