Source: Review copy
Publication: 19 January 2023 from Orenda Books
My thanks to Orenda Books for an advance copy for review
This is no utopia…
1996. Northern Israel. Lola leaves an unhappy home life in England for the fabled utopian life of a kibbutz, but this heavily guarded farming community on the Arab-Israeli border isn’t the idyll it seems, and tensions are festering.
Hundreds of miles away, in the Jerusalem offices of the International Tribune newspaper, all eyes are on Israel’s response to a spate of rocket attacks from Lebanon, until cub reporter Jonny Murphy gets a tip from a mysterious source that sends him straight into the danger zone.
When the body of an Arab worker is discovered in the dirt of the kibbutz chicken house, it triggers a series of events that puts Lola and the whole community in jeopardy, and Jonny begins to uncover a series of secrets that put everything at risk, as he begins to realise just how far some people will go to belong…
Journalism gives you an extraordinary ability to see parts of the world through the eyes of people who live there and this is especially trenchant when the territory is ridden with conflict. One of the oldest conflicts there is lies in the Middle East. The wars in this region have been long and intractable and it is this enduring war that ex CNN journalist Sarah Sultoon has chosen for her latest work of fiction, Dirt.
The action in Dirt largely takes place in a kibbutz on the Israel/Lebanon border. The kibbutz is staffed by Israelis assisted by a combination of international volunteers who live and work in the Beit Liora kibbutz and local workers who are compelled to stay outside the kibbutz at night for security reasons. Israeli citizens are strictly prohibited from entry to Lebanon and similarly Lebanese workers are seen as a security risk by the Israelis.
Lola is one of the international volunteers. She’s a lonely character who left London to escape an unhappy life and now she works in the banana fields. It’s a hard life; there’s nothing glamorous about it, but she likes the comradeship that it brings and she welcomes being part of a community, even though she is literally living in the path of serious danger. Iran’s Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political party and armed group, sees Israel as its sworn enemy, and holds a powerful sway over Lebanon.
Jonny Murphy was brought up in England but learnt Hebrew from his Jewish mother. He is a reporter for the International Tribune and is desperate to make his mark. When a death occurs on the kibbutz, Jonny and Lola find that there is danger inside the kibbutz as well as outside. Jonny mines his source to discover what is being hidden from the public. What he learns will put everyone’s lives in mortal danger.
Sarah Sultoon tells this story through the eyes of Lola and Jonny, alternating chapters until Jonny arrives at the kibbutz and meets Lola for the first time. Both these characters have secrets of their own, but nothing surpasses the secret that Jonny has uncovered.
I loved the brilliantly authentic detail in this story. The sharp and pacy writing is resplendent with the kind of detail that only comes from experience and it makes the book feel so real. In showing us this conflict through the eyes of two characters, Sultoon makes the personal bring alive the political in a way that really hits home.
There is real tension in this situation where not only are bombs landing close to the kibbutz, but there’s also a murderer at large and it appears that no-one is quite who they purport to be. There’s another kind of jeopardy in the kibbutz fields too – a more basic one, but equally as fraught with danger. Safety is at a premium, but can Lola trust anyone who says they know where that is too be found?
Verdict: Sarah Sultoon has delivered an incredibly intense political thriller where the fear is never far away and the intense sense of claustrophobic danger leads straight into a shocking climax with massive repercussions. This is spell-binding writing that is genuinely shocking.
Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if…..