Ian Shaw’s ambitious new novel about Middle East politics is exasperating but only because the politics of the Middle East is so exasperating. For the uninitiated, reading Quill of the Dove is like seeing an episode of Game of Thrones for the first time and trying to fathom a dozen parallel, but connected, storylines.
Try to remember, for example, the evolving parade of Muslim, Druze and Christian factions during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90). Try to understand all the brutal machinations of Palestinians and Israelis in the territory we once, without irony, called the Holy Land. Try to recall all the peace agreements that extremists torpedoed during the last half century. This is a region where hope is repeatedly crushed by the shackles of violent history and strong religion.
The Gatineau-based Shaw, a former diplomat and aid worker in the Middle East, has created a muscular cast of characters, some kindly, many brutal, involved for two decades in political and military conflicts. But trying to keep all the players straight in your head as they move backwards and forwards in time and place is frustrating for any reader not already immersed in Middle East politics.
Thankfully, Shaw is a man involved in various literary pursuits and knows how to write to hold his readers’ attention, despite the aforementioned exasperations. His battle scenes are detailed, gripping and realistic. His insights into Middle East politics are superb. A very complex, heartbreaking love story plays out against the mayhem.
Shaw is the author of one previous novel, Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls written under the pseudonym of Con Cu. He is also a contributor to a forthcoming book of short stories called The Marginal Ride Anthology. As well, he is the driving force behind Deux Voiliers Publishing, a collective of writers, editors and translators, and Ottawa’s Prose in the Park festival.
At the centre of Quill is Marie Boivin, a young journalist working for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir. She was adopted by a Quebec family as a young child and knows her roots are in Lebanon. But the only clue she has to her background is a photograph of a man and woman she suspects are her birth parents. The man, Marc Taragon, is a famous French journalist in the Middle East who has hatched, along with some moderate Palestinians and Israelis, a two-state peace plan that, to most of us outsiders, seems like common sense but naturally riles all the extremists.
Marie arranges to interview Marc in Cyprus. The two quickly bond but Marie does not tell Marc she thinks he is her father. Deception of all kinds propel this novel. Many of the characters hide their true identities and motives. Surprises abound.
The action keeps moving back and forth from 2007 in Cyprus and Europe to 1977 during the Lebanese Civil War. We learn Marc’s backstory and his affair with a Muslim woman named Hoda. Back in 1997, Marc, Hoda and a group of friends – Muslims, Jews and Christians – pinballed from one crisis to another in various locales in the Middle East. Death and torture lurked around every corner.
Marie eventually discovers who her biological parents were and how she came to be orphaned. It’s not a happy ending in any traditional sense. Should you have expected anything different? It is the Middle East, after all. It seems there are no happy endings there. Just ask the millions in Syria who have been killed and displaced in recent years by factions and politics as complicated, frustrating and exasperating as those of its neighbours.
In town: Ian Shaw’s Quill of the Dove (Guernica Editions) will be launched in Ottawa May 5 at 3 p.m. at Vimy Brewing Company, 145 Loretta Ave. N. #1.