Monday, June 21

The Gates of Zion - Bodie Thoene

American Ellie Warne is still finding Palestine overwhelming - she's hoping that her work for her archaeologist uncle will lead to a professional career in photography, and is enjoying a flirtation with her uncle's assistant Moshe, despite his disinterest in wider global issues. And they're hard to avoid, because it's 1947: the aftermath of the Second World War is still settling, Jews are being forbidden entry to Britain, and the British army - spearheaded by its politicians - is closing its eyes to egregious acts from the increasingly militant Muslim population in Palestine. Fomented by Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, the previous harmony between Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the ancient city is being torn apart. For those wise and astute, the coming Partition Resolution, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arabic states, is not a cause for celebration of the creation of Zion but the trigger for what would become civil war.
Ellie is unaware of any of these tensions, and is instead focused on opportunities for career-making photographs. The first of these is a scroll, brought to her uncle's home by an elderly Bedouin tribesman and his grandson. Though she suspects the antikas are not particularly valuable, she is somehow drawn to the ancient writings and the story that the boy found them in clay pots in a cave while herding goats in the desert. She convinces the men to leave the scroll with her for a few days, and photographs them carefully - an act that contributes to her being embroiled in people smuggling, arms smuggling, and at the forefront of seething political unrest.
I hadn't previously heard of Thoene or her husband and researcher Brock. Though not at all New Agey, I did feel as though I was lead to reading something Judaic, as my eyes fell in quick succession on several Jewish-themed novels at the library, before landing on the Zion Chronicles, of which this is the first. And it includes several elements that I am drawn to, including the era, theology, comparative religion in general, Judaism in particular, the opportunity to learn more about Islamic beliefs and practices, and the impact of the Second World War of American feminism.
The Gates of Zion is necessarily complicated - the setting is convoluted to begin with, and Thoene has done a capable job of combining historical events with a fictional narrative that includes real people, places and events. The work is clearly well sited and researched. But I found reading The Gates of Zion a real slog, for two reasons. The first was that the writing tilted strongly to the hyperbolic, with overwrought portrayals of emotion - crumpling into silent sobs, uneasiness transforming into brutal awareness, fighting off feelings of horror, That, I realise as I write this, is indicative of a larger issue I had: the writing style is a little heavy on telling over showing, which I found undermined the emotional impact many of the scenes would have otherwise had.
The second problem for me was the heaviness of the religious themes. The Gates of Zion is clearly, in retrospect, a strongly Christian Message text, which I didn't realise when I began reading it. There is a very hefty dose of unsubtle theological preaching at alongside the larger plot, and a strong sprinkling of deus ex machina-like coincidences that I might have been prepared to suspend disbelief for in the absence of other glaring flaws.
With one exception, a high-profile rabbi who collaborates with the enemy, the Jewish characters come out well, including the rather large percentage of neo-Christian Jews who believe Jesus was the Messiah but his message has been co-opted by Christianity:
"I am Moshe Sachar, and I am a Jew who believes that the one we call Yeshua is the Messiah. In this I hope with a hope that knows the truth; He will come again to my people and they will know Him for who He is and find pardon and the joy of knowing Him as a loving and merciful Savior. And for you, dear Ellie, I hope that you will reach out to Him. For I know He cares so much for you." His face was full of emotion as he stepped toward Ellie and wrapped his arms around her.
"What do I do, Moshe? How can I know Him too and have hope?"
He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "Just talk to Him, my love. Just ask Him to make you everything you can be. Give Him your heart."
"But it's broken, Moshe; my heart is broken." She buried her face against him.
"He knows all about broken hearts, Ellie. And our King David writes that your broken heart is just the kind of sacrifice He will accept."
Muslims, on the other hand, are uniformly treacherous, malevolent, unreasonable and sadistic. They are also portrayed without depth or other motivation, and I found this weakened their impact, making them cardboard villains.
It's not just religion that determines personality, though - race, too, plays a strong part. Brits (or Britishers, in the text) are biased, myopic and anti-Semitic, while Americans are either sympathetic and intelligent but often naive, or anti-Semitic and cruel. This simplification of a really complex issue does little to serve the book or engage the reader.
And that's a real shame, because the era and the story are fascinating. A glossary would also have been useful, rather than having to try to infer meaning from context alone, and a brief overview of actual events in which this was set would also have been useful for readers unfamiliar with the history and consequence of these events.As I wrote at the beginning, there are many elements in The Gates of Zion that appeal to me, not least of which is a mildly distorted version of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But, thought this is the first in a series of five (followed by the six-part Zion Legacy series), I doubt I'll be returning to the Thoene fold any time soon. - Alex

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