At first glance, Out Of It, a debut novel by the short story writer Selma Dabbagh, seems – stylistically – more easy reading than literary fiction.
It is set aside, however, by the weight of the material: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Or rather, the Palestinian side of it.)
The story centres around a pair of twentysomething boy-and-girl twins, Iman and Rashid. We first meet them in Gaza in the midst of an Israeli barrage (although the precise details of place and political context are curiously obscured). Rashid is excited that he has won a scholarship to London, giving him the opportunity to finally get "out of it". Iman, meanwhile, traumatised by the death of a friend, resolves to take a more active role in the hostilities.
What stands out immediately is the excellent portrayal of the cameo character Sabri, the twins' older brother, who lost his wife, child and legs in an Israeli attack some years before. A disfigured satirist in the mould of Alexander Pope, he exists in the world of his intellect while enduring the indignity of having his mother change his catheter bags. This moribund, wheelchair-bound "middle manager character with ... a broad dome of a head that was becoming increasingly visible," is the most vivid and moving character in the novel.
At this point, however, we leave Sabri behind and wind our way to London (a more comfortable setting for the half-Palestinian, London-based author), where the twins, together with a group of hangers-on, end up. In the course of their cultural adjustment, the author lets drop some quite rude caricatures of the British: a young diplomat with "expensive schooling" who says "orff" instead of "off" and "smells of wet potato peel", a slut who confuses Palestine and Pakistan, and so on.
She also has an authoritative university professor make the lazily racist – and quite inexcusable – comparison between the Nazis and the Jewish pioneers who founded the state of Israel (he says that the Jews used "the same tactics against the Arabs" as the Nazis had used against them). This claim is offensive rubbish, and one which the author makes no attempt to defuse.
Out Of It is compelling enough, and will doubtless appeal to many. For a particularly sophisticated insight into the plight of the Palestinians and their perspective on the conflict, however, consider Mourid Barghouti's beautiful new book, I Was Born Here, I Was Born There.