Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 257 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by John Cullen.
It’s not very often that I get about 10 pages into a novel and decide I absolutely must buy everything else written by this same author. But that is what happened when I started reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack. I was so stunned and impressed by the novel’s opening I just knew that I had to explore her back catalogue as quickly as possible.
But Yasmina Khadra is not really a female author. She is, in fact, a man and former officer in the Algerian Army who used a pen name to avoid military censorship — or that’s the explanation given on the “about the author” page in this book. (You can find out more on the Wikipedia entry and on the author’s official [French language] website.)
Khadra has some 20 books to “her” name, but only four have been translated into English. The bestselling 2002 novel The Swallows of Kabul, shortlisted for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was the first. The Attack, also shortlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Award, was (as far as I can gather) the second. This book was also shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina and the Prix Renaudot, and won the Prix de Libraires. So, my initial impression, that The Attack was by an author of some standing was pretty much on the money.
The Attack is set in Israel and — surprise, surprise — it’s about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Amin has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated, highly professional doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in the most fashionable of circles, making him a shining example of integration.
But when police inform him that the suicide bomber is his much-adored wife, Amin’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart. His house is vandalised, he is shunned by his colleagues and suddenly his adopted homeland wants nothing more to do with him regardless of his previous social and professional standing.
And all the while Amin fails to believe that his wife is responsible for so much death and destruction, even when the police provide evidence to the contrary.
For much of the book we follow Amin’s search for truth. How can it be that the wife he loved so much had so much hate in her? What caused her to turn away from him and their seemingly perfect life together to carry out such an abominable act? What clues did she give him beforehand that he missed? Could he have stopped her?
During his investigation, helped in part by a female colleague whom he trusts, Amin put his own life in danger. At times the reader wants to reach into the story, grab him by the shoulders and tell him to get over it — he will never find anything that will make him comprehend the incomprehensible.
This is a searing heart-felt book, at times graphic and shocking, at other times incredibly moving. It is always believable.
My only quibble is that the first person narrative becomes wearing after awhile, but this may simply be a reflection of the rather wearing, or should I say heavy, subject matter. This is a book that makes for uncomfortable reading, but despite this I found it difficult to put The Attack down. I raced through it in a matter of days and felt completely wrung out by the end of it.
Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.