Reviewed by John Delacourt
Quill of the Dove
By Ian Thomas Shaw
ISBN 13: 9781771833783, 304 pp., $24.95, 2019
In Lisa Halliday’s recent novel Assymetry, Amar, one of her characters, muses about the particular challenge of writing about the Middle East: “maybe East and West really are eternally irreconcilable – like a curve and its asymptote, geometrically fated never to intersect … but wasn’t it also [Stephen] Crane who said that an artist is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways?”
Transported to 2019, Crane might be consoled that there is still supporting evidence for his claim for the power of the artist. Canadian author Ian Thomas Shaw’s new novel Quill of the Dove proves that a writer’s memory is powerful enough to move laterally and create a searing vision of the contemporary Middle East. Shaw’s evocation of Lebanon, during the Civil War in 1982, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2007, illuminates the tragic consequences of the curve and the asymptote of West and East, never intersecting.
The two points in time are pivotal in the lives of two journalists in Quill of the Dove. Marc Taragon is a French correspondent who has spent decades covering the Middle East. Marie Boivin is a young Canadian reporter who was once a Lebanese orphan, adopted by a Canadian soldier serving with the UN. For Taragon, the dream of creating peace – and perhaps unifying curve and asymptote – has become a personal mission. By the time he meets Marie for the first time in Nicosia in 2007, he is working on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan called the Arkassa initiative. She interviews him ostensibly because she is interested in his perspective on the region. She has an ulterior motive though; she hopes to get some background on just who her mother and father might be. All she has is a photograph of a young man who looks remarkably like Taragon, standing beside an attractive woman who was perhaps Palestinian. The couple could be her real mother and father. From this first scene with the two of them, Shaw has deftly managed to personalize and deepen the dramas of identity, unity and reconciliation, transforming these themes from the political to the personal.
The more that Boivin is drawn into Taragon’s world, the more she begins to unravel the complex tangle of alliances and adversaries that Taragon has attracted in his pursuit of the peace plan. The former includes a member of Israel’s left wing Meretz party, Jonathan Bronstein, who has become a peace broker in his own right. The latter includes two Mossad agents, Ari Epstein and David Levi. In the hands of a lesser writer, these characters could easily become caricatured, given how polarized their positions are within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet Shaw depicts a battleground where both sides are equally driven by the love of their country, and equally aware of what sacrifice for a higher ideal truly means. Ultimately, it is this deeper understanding of the cost idealism can exact that Boivin comes to in the end – a recognition of Taragon’s legacy.
Shaw takes some technical risks, shifting back and forth between two time periods while giving the reader an understanding of the historical and geo-political context of conflicts in the region. In the early chapters a lot is revealed, while the story moves at the pace of a political thriller. Yet if Quill of the Dove is demanding initially, it is so in the best sense, like the Le Carre novels of the seventies and eighties. That’s a high bar, but Quill of the Dove stretches, clears and ultimately merits comparison with such company. A smart political thriller written in a tragic key, Shaw’s novel is testament to how rich the rewards of the genre can still be for the reader.
About the reviewer: John Delacourt is an Ottawa writer whose fiction has appeared in numerous publications in Canada and the U.S.. Butterfly his third novel, will be released this spring. In addition to his fiction writing, his criticism and political commentary has appeared in the Rover, the Ottawa Review of Books, Ottawa Citizen, iPolitics, the Hill Times and Policy magazine in Canada. He studied at the Humber School for Writers after graduating with an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto.