This is the world that Ivan inhabits. A mere eighteen years old, his parents were recently evacuated from the city with other cadres of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Ivan remains behind, for reasons we do not know, but he has a role as an interpreter for the various international medical volunteers within the Sabra refugee camp. When not performing that duty, Ivan works undercover for the PLO, delivering false ID documents.
At eighteen, Ivan is embarking on the adult world. And for a novel with a potentially depressing and dark storyline, Ivan’s age proves uplifting and the source of unexpected humour. With hormones raging and a virginity he looks forward to shedding, he knows where he wants to look but still has the nuances of the social subtleties to learn. The older Eli, a Norwegian physiotherapist is the subject of his immediate focus. He is drawn to her both emotionally and physically, as well as working alongside her at the hospital.
At the hospital they both face a challenge in the form of Youssef, an orphan severely wounded by a cluster bomb. He is belligerent and not interested in making the effort required to work on his recovery. His progress forms a good part of the story told, how Eli, and Ivan in particular, work with him and unveil the cheeky boy that lies beneath the surface, restoring his sense of life and redirecting his determination.
By day the medics work and Ivan interprets, always aware of his limits, always aware of the nature of grief. By night, they socialise: eating together; drinking alcohol; getting stoned; huddling together for human warmth and kindness. That difficult but routine way of life tests their limits and loyalties when the president-elect is assassinated and the Israeli army enters Beirut. At this stage, Hiller describes the horrific realities of a war-torn environment as the army invades and executes inhumane and thoughtless damage.
Sabra Zoo is a novel written in a style that demands a slow and attentive read. Each sentence seems to be an action that leads to the next and nothing can be quickly surveyed on the page. It’s an emotionally engaging novel that offers a great insight into the reality of this appalling world.
Hailed as a “debut thriller for fans of Waltz with Bashir and De Niro’s Game” on the cover of the proof copy, I beg to differ with the description of “thriller”. But what I feel it is not, is actually much, much more: a very worthy tribute and insight into how people live in such dreadful circumstances of war. What most of us spend our lives blissfully shielded from, others have to face on a daily basis, and it is all described here with emotion but not sentimentality.
I suspect Sabra Zoo will turn out to be one of those initially quiet gems of 2010 with word of mouth leading to a major audience. Hiller paints a picture that you really need to read. Don’t miss it: Sabra Zoo really is a gem of education and engaging storytelling. You will find yourself living under Ivan’s own skin.
Author website: Sabra Zoo.
[With thanks to the publisher, Telegram Books for the copy read.]