The Deadly Promise by Gilou Bareau delves into the intricate web of political tensions, personal vendettas and unexpected alliances in the midst of the 2014 Gaza War. Set against the backdrop of Israel’s devastating offensive against the besieged Palestinian enclave, the novel opens with a chilling “murder” in London that sets off a chain of events no one could have foreseen.
The noir fiction follows Zach Peretz, a complex character of Syrian-Jewish descent grappling with both personal demons and a quest for justice. Keeping in line with the literary genre, the protagonist isn’t a detective, but a deeply flawed character, an anti-hero. Zach’s struggles with cocaine addiction add layers of vulnerability and authenticity to his otherwise affable character. Despite his shortcomings, his determination to uncover the truth behind the death of his anti-Zionist academician brother, Abe, is unwavering.
He is joined by Abe’s ex-wife, Hepzibah who adds a captivating dimension to the narrative. As an Ashkenazi journalist with pro-Palestine sentiments, her beliefs and profession seem to be in constant conflict. However, when tragedy strikes, she forms an unlikely partnership with Zach, who despite being irreligious, is staunchly pro-Zionist. Their contrasting views on the occupation state and their own personal battles create an intriguing dynamic as, united in their shared grief, they navigate the murky waters of espionage, danger and conspiracy.
Having recently read and reviewed the memoir Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by Professor Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi Jew, it becomes evident how strikingly consistent these two parallel experiences are depicted. Both revolve around Sephardi and Mizrahi identities, terms often employed interchangeably, yet possessing distinct historical backgrounds.
In Zach’s case, we read that his forefathers had escaped persecution in Spain and later “lived peacefully with Arabs for five hundred years.” However, the conflict over Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s “fuelled Arab anger towards Jews and Zach’s family fled again.”
It was therefore interesting to read about the well-documented anti-Arabness espoused by “Arab Jews” despite having more in common with them culturally (and especially when it comes to cuisine) than their European co-religionists. Zach was a Zionist and “like the majority of Sephardis he’d paradoxically out-Zionisted the Europeans.” On the other hand, as Bareau writes: “Most pro-Palestinian Jews were European liberals like Hepzibah.”
Bareau, who is also of Syrian-Jewish background, skillfully weaves the personal and the political, using the tense backdrop of the impending invasion of Gaza as a mirror to reflect the characters’ internal struggles. The plot unfolds through a series of twists and turns, leading the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions and revelations. The author masterfully balances the intricacies of espionage with the human drama of loss, redemption and unexpected connections. While reading The Deadly Promise the reader is often left wondering to what extent the story is semi-autobiographical.
In some sense, the story unfolds as a late coming of age for our protagonist Zach, whose journey to overcome his addiction and discover his brother’s murderer is both gripping and inspiring, as we see his political affinities and even sense of identity come into question as “a not-so-sure Zionist.”
Crucially, the novel exposes the very polarising issue of Zionism within the Jewish community and diaspora, as Zach becomes increasingly convinced that Abe’s assailants, far from conveniently being anti-Semites, were in fact militant Zionists bent on silencing his outspoken criticism against the apartheid state.
Bareau’s prose is evocative and vivid, transporting readers to the streets of London and suburbs of Manchester to the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv and the intensity of occupied East Jerusalem. The narrative’s pacing keeps the tension taut, while the dialogue captures the essence of each character, making them come alive on the pages.
The book’s title sparked my speculation about its significance. Could it be linked to Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which “promised” a Jewish homeland in historic Palestine? Alternatively, as hinted on the front cover depicting two hands shaking, one covered by the Palestinian flag and the other the Israeli, could it symbolise the ongoing collaboration between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government? Only as I reached the final chapters was the answer unveiled – a rewarding revelation.
Bareau’s ability to create a narrative that seamlessly weaves together personal and political themes is commendable. In doing so, the author delivers a novel that entertains, enlightens and evokes lasting contemplation.