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When Past and Present Collide

When Past and Present CollideSet in Palestine nearly 80 years ago, the newest novel by Tufts’ Jonathan Wilson weaves together a powerful mix of religious and political issues that are still very much alive. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.09.03] Cultural and religious friction. Tension. A looming sense of conflict. While Jonathan Wilson's new novel "A Palestine Affair" is set in 1924, the political and social issues it explores are still very much alive in the Middle East today. The third novel from the Tufts English professor, say many reviewers, is a great read which has as much to do with the present as it does with the past.

"'A Palestine Affair' takes us back to that particularly fluid period between the First and Second World Wars, when the British held a provisional mandate from the League of Nations to rule Palestine," reported the Christian Science Monitor. "Though publicly committed to the creation of a Jewish state, Britain was also trying to placate Arab concerns, a diplomatic two-step that was no easier then than it is now."

Against this backdrop of political, cultural and religious tensions, Wilson weaves together mystery with history to produce a compelling story. The novel begins with a murder, as Jacob De Groot - an Orthodox Jew dressed as an Arab - stumbles into the yard of a British couple and dies with a knife in his chest.

"At the start, the question of who killed De Groot is tangled enough to keep you reading long after you've decided to put the book down and go to sleep for the night," reported The Washington Post. "Yet halfway through the story, you pretty much know who did it, and well before the end you know why. That pacing does not fit the detective genre, but you're likely to stay up late reading anyway. For the book's real center isn't ‘whodunit?' but ‘what am I doing here?'"

At its heart, "A Palestine Affair" is a story about finding identity amidst the cultural and religious tensions that permeated Palestine after World War I.

"When the Orthodox Jewish man ends up with a knife in his chest in the garden the very quick assumptions go to young Arab boy as the killer," National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook said in an interview with Wilson for "On Point.""But of course, it's not nearly that simple, and you quickly get into uncovering the deep tensions between Jews themselves at that time, let alone between Arabs and Jews, and British and Jews, and British Jews and Jews."

According to Wilson, the ever-present friction between the British, Jews and Arabs in his novel mirrors current conditions in the Middle East.

"I think perhaps the closest parallel is with the United States in Iraq because they are actually there and they are essentially running the place and trying to bring together warring groups without, perhaps, the deepest knowledge of what you're doing," Wilson, chair of Tufts' English department, told NPR's "On Point.""When you're dealing with religion, it's never simple. That's the lesson. And it's never rational."

Wilson's book raises important questions, but is careful not to offer easy solutions.

"The tone of ‘A Palestine Affair' resonates with Hemingway's harrowing work after World War I," reported the Christian Science Monitor. "Wilson has the same ear for unanswered longing, the same courage to let situations hover unresolved. This quietly moving novel doesn't provide any relief from that longing, but it offers a deep understanding of the predicament."

As The Washington Post reported, "Like the best of historical fiction, Wilson's story is placed in an imagined past, but it is really happening right now."

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