Dirt by Sarah Sultoon – blog tour

I must confess, I know very little about the kibbutz movement at all. My knowledge is coloured by the media portrayal in the 1960s and 1970s of Utopian communes of hippy farmers which belies the hard work that farming actually is. Wikipedia tells me that the kibbutz volunteering phenomenon took off in the mid-1960s, peaking in the 1970s with 12k volunteers annually, and decreasing gradually to just a few hundred in 2001. Nowadays kibbutzim have changed immeasurably, not just being farms, but having factories or high-tech businesses attached and loads of employees.

It’s 1996 and Dirt is set in a kibbutz in what could be paradise on the Mediterraean coast, but is maybe not quite due to its location …

The Mediterranean is all flirtatious languor, despite the tensions a few degrees north, where Israel’s border with Lebanon slopes abruptly beyond the kibbutzz’s perimeter fence.

To the uneducated eye, it might seem as if the territory changes hands just past those sharp spikes of razor wire. As if it really is as simple as tracing out a line in the sand. When Lola first arrived, those metal loops and curls seemed to gleam far too malevolently. All the guard posts, all the hardware, it all felt too conspicuous and overblown. Wasn’t the kibbutz just a communal farm? A much-revered socialist idyll that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world? Why was there a fortified perimeter around the fields themselves, encircling nothing but bananas and avocados? A watchtower at the heavy steel entrance gates that only opened and closed for known faces or designated visitors? To say nothing of the steep hill of no-man’s land beyond the fence, before the red and white stripes of the Lebanese flag replaced the Israeli Star of David, often hard to pick out against the similar blue of the sky?

Lola has been a volunteer at the kibbutz for six months now, arriving from England with her friend Sam who is escaping her very strict Jewish family, and Lola is happy to leave her own unhappy home life behind too. They join the four other volunteers at Beit Liora kibbutz and settle into the way of life there, joining the permanent staff of workers and founder members, and the local Arab-Israeli Druze workers who help farm the fields and run the chicken sheds. Lola is assigned to the banana fields, and each day its an early rise for a few hours work before a hearty breakfast, then back to work until lunchtime. The afternoons are their own. She mostly enjoys the work, but sometimes the lack of privacy in their accommodation does get her down, and Tom is definitely much keener on her than she is on him.

Being so close to the Lebanese border brings its problems as political tensions are mounting and they all fear rocket attacks; the kibbutz has several bunkers. On the day the novel begins they are all summoned to the bunkers, but it is not because of missiles. One of the Arab-Israeli workers has been found dead in the chicken sheds, his body pecked all over, murder is suspected. Immediately, we ask ourselves is this now a ‘locked room’ mystery, or is it something a little different?

Our attention shifts to the offices of the International Tribune newspaper in Jerusalem, where junior reporter Jonny Murphy gets a tip from a mysterious but impeccable source about the murder and hints of other things going on up there. That he manages to persuade his editor to let him go to investigate the potential scoop is nothing short of a miracle, and he off he heads – straight into danger of course!

Beit Liora and its people hide a multitude of secrets – everyone has them, there are also some very shaky alibis for the time of Farid’s death. Recriminations and accusations start to mount, and the hornet’s nest that Jonny will stir up will put them all at risk.

Sultoon is an award-winning journalist and writer whose work at CNN gave her extensive experience in conflict zones, whilst travelling widely from the UK and USA to the Middle East. She puts that to good use in this multi-layered novel which at heart is about finding one’s place in the world through understanding one’s identity and heritage. I certainly didn’t work out where it was going early on – thinking it was probably just a political murder in a locked room scenario. It’s more complex than that thankfully, and in the later stages you need to keep your wits about you to keep things straight as the web of intrigue unravels in the politics and personal relationships.

Of our two young leads, I was drawn to Jonny more than Lola. Lola doesn’t yet know what she wants, but Jonny is less naive, being sharply driven to prove himself. The novel also drips atmosphere, the setting is really their co-star. After the body in the prologue, Sultoon’s third novel may have a slightly slowburn start, but that gives the reader a chance to appreciate how the land lies all the more, and ensures that when the action really heats up that you’re fully immersed in this fascinating world.

Source: Review copy – Thank you! Orenda paperback original, 320 pages.

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