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by Nathan Englander
Knopf, September 2017
272 pages
ISBN: 1524732737

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, Nathan Englander's gripping new novel, immediately pulls the reader into the mystery of a captive known only as Prisoner Z. The year is 2014, and he has no contact with the outside or with another human being except for his close relationship with the man who has been his only guard for over a decade. We are in the complex world of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Prisoner Z is in a black ops prison someplace in the Negev. The short chapters begin to alternate between 2014 and 2002. We follow various characters in Berlin and Paris, and although something seems to be going on below the surface, it is a challenge to see the connections. In Paris 2002, we meet a beautiful Italian waitress and a spy on the run. In Berlin 2002 we meet a Canadian businessman and a Palestinian searching for a way to support his family and their struggles in the occupied territories. Who are these people really, and what is their connection with each other and with Prisoner Z?

Some of the 2014 chapters focus on the dream-like memories of a dying Israeli leader. Called only The General, he lies unconscious in a hospital bed where he has been comatose for eight years. We learn who he is and what he has done in a hallucinatory format, with the past and the present blurring together. He is, however, directly responsible for the fate of Prisoner Z and is the only one who knows of his existence. Ruthi, the woman who has been the General's close aide, and who stays by his bed all the time, is the mother of the guard. There is a kind of intense love between her and the General, as there is a kind of love between the guard and Prisoner Z.

Love of one's land and one's people creates conflict for individuals trying to love one another. The tragically intractable political situation of the Israelis and the Palestinians both wanting the same piece of land is reflected in the individual lives of the characters. Each character has to deal with a degree of moral ambiguity. Although Prisoner Z and his history appear to be the main focus of the novel, other characters, including the woman known at first only as "the waitress," become focal points of the narrative. The title of the book refers to an event in which she participates, but we are left wanting to know more about her.

Englander tries to show the ethical dilemma that is at the heart of cycles of murder and revenge plaguing the two nations. He has taken on an enormous task, and the book works best when we are swept up in the lives and descriptions of the individuals. But perhaps he is trying to show us that there may be a way for the two opposing sides to meet in the middle.

Anne Corey is a writer, poet, teacher and botanical artist in New York's Hudson Valley.

Reviewed by Anne Corey, September 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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