Feb 24th 2011 (taken from The Economist)
A BEDSIT in Tufnell Park, an unremarkable suburb of north London, seems an unlikely setting for an espionage thriller about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until the hero, Michel, who is a survivor of the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, takes out a bundle of fake passports and foreign currency from a secret alcove in the bathroom and goes to work.
Mischa Hiller's debut, “Sabra Zoo”, a chilling rites-of-passage novel set in Beirut in 1982 during the killings in the camps, was highly praised. “Shake Off” builds on that success. The book sweeps the reader straight into the deadly world of an operative, where everyday objects and events are weapons and battlefields in the undercover war. As every good thriller should try to do, “Shake Off” is peppered with expert tradecraft: how to hide money in a rolled-up newspaper, how wet paper is easier to flush away than dry.
But “Shake Off” is more than a straightforward spy thriller. Mr Hiller's book is both poignant and human. As Michel tries to cope with loss and grief, memories erupt like a volcano, such as his father pushing him over as the gunmen open fire—and then slowly expiring on top of him. Not surprisingly, Michel has become a junkie who cannot sleep unless he first swallows a handful of codeine tablets. Charged by his handler, Abu Leila, with finding a secret venue for talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Michel also reads Primo Levi, where he finds dark echoes of what happened to him in Lebanon.
“Shake Off” is written in the first person, and Mr Hiller, who grew up in Beirut, London and Dar es Salaam, has a unique and engaging voice. The book's narrow focus intensifies both the narrative drama and Michel's inner desolation. Mr Hiller's writing style is sparse but evocative; the hero's bare room and the loneliness of exile deftly drawn. Words are used sparingly and effectively; the Phalangists don't burst in that fateful night, they “interrupt” Michel's family's final dinner.
The menace builds steadily until a brutal assassination in Berlin, after which Michel, tracked by Mossad, goes on the run to the highlands of Scotland. Only Helen, his feisty neighbour, with whom he has formed a close bond, can offer some kind of salvation. Forced to use her as a kind of sanctuary, he endangers the woman he loves. Powerful and thought-provoking, this is a book that stays with the reader. Mr Hiller's “Shake Off” is hard to shake off.