Book review: Lion Heart, By Justin Cartwright

Middle Eastern risk and mystery drive a novel of quests and quandaries
  • @indyvoices

Dropped into the labyrinth of Jerusalem, with its endless bloody clash of rival histories, Justin Cartwright's narrator spots that the sacred rocks and wadis of the Holy Land "are semaphoring different messages to different people".

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Across a dozen novels of high intellectual distinction and finely-crafted readability, the South African-born writer has often pitched his plot around stories that breed life-changing doubts and disputes. Given this fictional DNA, maybe it's a surprise that his admirers have had to wait so long for a novel of mystery and muddle in the Middle East.

Very much a Cartwright type, Richie Cathar inherits from his hippie-scholar father - a charismatic explorer-historian whose life foundered in drugs and delusions - an ardent curiosity about the age of the Crusades and a sometimes feckless detachment that leaves him alone and adrift in his mid-thirties.

fter a break-up, Richie draws on the remnants of his academic prestige at Oxford to fund a quest for the True Cross – or the relic that the warrior-king Richard Coeur de Lion thought of as that – among the traces of the Crusader kingdoms in Israel. Once in Jerusalem, an intense affair with the Palestinian-Canadian journalist Noor, and a wary friendship with her august, secret-keeping relative Haneen, drag Richie into the potentially lethal intrigues of this city of "ambiguity and disillusion".

As mysteries multiply, and even the good old Templars take a bow, Lion Heart could have buckled under the weight of its thematic armour. But Cartwright plays it cool: this is a novel of dodgy dossiers and tainted texts, of letters, emails and documents that conceal as much as they reveal. Another writer would have given us more of Noor. Deliberately, Cartwright holds their love at a distance, a questionable chronicle like the rest, with only the odd, sumptuous image - as blood-orange juice drips down bare flesh - to remind us of a sensual plenitude beyond the wrangle of interpretations.

Richie the researcher's quest for the treasures of the Crusader art, as "strange, mad, noble and persistent" as their hunger for Jerusalem, begins to shed light. Richie the lover's hunt for his elusive girlfriend, who in Cairo vanishes into the political maelstrom after the Arab Spring, pulls the novel down into a much darker place. If he fails to command the present, Richie can at least tighten his grip on the past - both the post-Crusade wanderings of Richard Lionheart himself, and his own fretful upbringing as a lost child of the counter-culture, and its secular fantasies of redemption and transcendence.

Every life, every story, becomes a palimpsest here: a layered tissue of erasures and amendments, with truths, lies and hopes forever overlaid on one another. As smart and fluent as we expect from Cartwright, and more affecting than its scepticism about our knowledge and convictions would suggest, Lion Heart deciphers with a shrewd eye the nagging riddles of history - and of the human heart.