Jonathan Wilson's new novel, "A Palestine Affair," opens, quite spectacularly as Mark Bloomberg, a painter, and his non-Jewish American wife, Joyce, having just made love in their new Jerusalem home, go outside to their garden. A softly moaning, bleeding man in Arab dress rushes toward Mark, hugs him, then crashes to the ground dead. The man is Jacob De Groot, a Dutch Jewish poet, and his murder radically alters the lives of nearly everyone in the novel.
Set in 1924, Wilson's gripping book follows six months in the lives of some half-dozen characters, most of whom have immigrated to British Mandate Palestine to escape the pain of their personal or professional lives in England. Several characters are reeling from the psychic wounds of World War I. For them, as for European Jews who immigrated to Palestine after World War II, the ancient land represents a chance for a new lease on life, one hopefully unhaunted by the tragic European past. But haunted their lives remain.
Mark, burned out emotionally and professionally, is encouraged to make aliyah by Joyce -- whose ardent Zionism he considers "foolish but insignificant." But Joyce has her own ulterior motive: She aspires to cure her marital woes by relocating, pinning all her hopes on a Palestine she has never visited.
Indeed, most of the characters resettle in Palestine for reasons having little to do with heartfelt Zionism. Murder investigator Robert Kirsch, in part, hopes to escape his family's intractable gloom over his brother, killed in the war. "He hadn't thought about the Jews much at all; he'd been thinking about himself, his family ... and finally, the prospect of decent weather."
Wilson is unusually qualified to write a knowledgeable novel about the British in Palestine under the Mandate. A British Jew who spent many years in Israel, he is the author of two other fiction books and chair of Tufts University's English department. His deft portrait of 1920s Jerusalem and its diverse, bickering inhabitants is complemented by realistically flawed characters whose misguided behavior in Palestine comes to make almost perfect sense.
Harpist Susan Miron's CD of Scarlatti sonatas has just been released by Centaur Records.