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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shake Off, by Micha Hiller (hardcover, $24.99)

Stunning and moving.

We never learn the real name of the protagonist of this spy novel, mostly set in 1989 England. He is variously Michel Anton, Roberto Levi, Michel Khoury, but mostly just Michel. And it doesn't matter what his name is, because that is not what defines him when the story begins.

When Michel was very young, his family was destroyed in a raid and massacre on his Palestinian camp in Lebanon. He escaped, was sheltered by a foster family, and began training to be a spy, recruited by a mysterious -- but apparently prominent man -- he knew only as Abu Leila.

Cultivated by Abu Leila, a distant surrogate father, Michel has learned many languages, to pick locks, defend himself, shoot a gun, pick out surveillance, and perform other classic spy moves we've learned about in novels about the Cold War. Michel never questions what he is asked to do on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He mostly pretends to be a student in England, although he has had other identities. Now he mostly transfers documents from a courier to Abu Leila in Germany.

Then he is asked to hunt up a property in which representatives of the Palestinians and the Israelis can meet to discuss creating one country in which all factions can live. This is his most significant task to date.

For most of the years since Michel was rescued from the burning camp, he has lived a disciplined and lonely life. He needs codeine to sleep and keep away the waking nightmares. Meticulously executing his spycraft, he only dreams of one day establishing some normal relationships. Then he meets Helen.

Helen gives him a different perspective on life. Although their relationship is not without difficulties, Michel finds himself wanting more out of life than what he has had so far. Of course, this is when things start to go wonky. Suddenly, Michel becomes the focus of both Mossad and PLO agents. He doesn't know whom he should trust. Even Helen could be an agent.

Hiller does an excellent job describing the build-up and break-down of a spy, the political world in 1989, and the confusing covert world in which Michel finds himself.

By the way, Hiller never actually states the time period. He gives hints: Gorbachev and glasnost, the first democratic elections in the Soviet Union, the imminent demise of the Berlin Wall, and the fact that it's getting harder to smoke in public.

I've given Shake Off an MBTB star.

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