Gazelle in the Shadows
In the mid 90s, Elizabeth Booth is a young British college student studying Arabic at Durham University. With some travel and work already under her belt, she excels at her studies and is sent to Damascus to immerse herself in the language. Taken aback by the generosity and kindness of the people there, she easy slips into a life in the ancient city. She has friends, her studies, and even a handsome boyfriend. But things aren’t always what they seem. Soon, in a world where mistrust and disloyalty are commonplace, Elizabeth finds herself navigating a web of lies, betrayals, and even murder involving MI6, deadly terrorist factions, and the shadowy Syrian secret police.
Enticing historical fiction is an avenue through which to blend fact with a varying amount of fiction (depending on the author and the story). This genre can work to inform, but also offers escape or even entertainment. In Gazelle in the Shadows, the British protagonist, Elizabeth Booth, is based on the author herself, so for this reader, the book sounded like an excellent way to dive into a story about Syrian politics and culture from an outsider’s point of view. Unfortunately it did not live up to that expectation.
Learning from a more experienced outsider’s perspective in the way of historical fiction is what made the book more alluring than if it had been a work of non-fiction. However, it seemed like the author tried to do too much with the narrative, which perhaps could have benefited from more points of view (among other things). Rather than devoting chapters to letters from Elizabeth to her family as well as diary entries, in addition to the story being told in first person from Elizabeth’s point of view, it would have been interesting to see into other characters’ heads, including Fatima, Nadia, and Elizabeth’s classmates at the Institute.
For a character who is far more traveled and globally experienced than I am, many of Elizabeth’s actions came as a shock to me. Multiple times she didn’t feel like societal rules or even actual laws applied to her because of her tourist status, or that she only chose to trust certain strangers but not others. She trusted strangers whom she met on her plane ride to Syria when they told her there would be no vacancies in hotels, but she didn’t check for herself. And even when one certain individual continuously broke her trust, she continued to fear for his safety and well-being by not telling an official at the British embassy about their relationship. She insisted she was brave enough to tag along to different places even though short-term history proved she was too frightened to participate. The frustration with her character was really quite distracting, and instead of being invested in the events going on around her, I found myself wondering what foolish thing she was going to do next, and how many of her choices were based on those the author made in real life.
The abrupt insertion of newspaper clippings towards the end of the book was quite jarring, too. When I read the first one it seemed like a section of notes from the author that should have been a footnote or deleted before publication. Typically the following chapter was related to the clipping, but attaching it to the end of the previous chapter was confusing. Again, it just seemed like the author was trying to do too much, but didn’t bother to make room for it. For example, these newspaper clippings provided some historical context and it would have been really interesting to see those scattered more consistently throughout the book.
Also, the pacing during the first two-thirds of the book was slower than the final one-third. The slower pace was actually enjoyable; it allowed for details to soak in and the story to develop. But then the ending rushes along and before you know it the story is over. This isn’t to say there is no action; in fact, most of the fast-paced, hair-raising action happened in that last one-third. Because of this, though, the character’s movements and intentions didn’t seem thought out, or at the very least, authentic, which made the fast-paced experiences uninteresting. Why weren’t the most gripping parts of the story more developed? It almost feels like the author didn’t spend as much time with those details as she did with other parts of the book. I didn’t want to hear for the twentieth time that Elizabeth’s relationship with her father was strained, I wanted to know more about those reporters hanging out near a war zone, and the significance of the places Elizabeth visited. There needed to be a more clear message about what this book was meant to be – a reflective novel with a lesson at the end? A historically placed story with unique twists and turns? The consequences of an outsider trying to fit in without letting go of their expected outsider privilege? Unfortunately, the mashup of all these things led to big disappointment.
Gazelle in the Shadows was published on April 20th, 2018. While I was provided with a copy of the book, all thoughts are my own.