Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 05 Sep 2017

Member Reviews

I found this book confusing on so many levels. The Israeli/Palestinian storyline is confusing enough politically, but there are just too many characters and the story slides back & forth between characters and time that I just lost the train of thought and gave up. Admittedly, political intrigue is not my "thing", so my review is likely colored by that. Perhaps I should have never started it in the first place.
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Can you write about Israel avoiding the everyday political implications? Hardly if not impossible, unless you are writing a very special dystopia. Despite the political buzz though, can you create good stories to be remember after the political actors are long ousted from the stage? Definitely yes!
The latest book by Nathan Englander, whose What We Talk When We Talk about Anne Frank is a beautiful collection of short stories, is a literary contribution to the never-ending and not always literary productive discussion using Israel, peace, Palestinians as main key-words. What it results from the random mixture of those three words is not necessarily a good combo, from the literary point of view at least. You have a given readership that probably expects you to have a point of view, but you still can write beautiful stories if you focus more on writing beautiful stories not engaged or entincing or attractive stories. 
Dinner at the Center of the Earth is made up of different small stories which are interwinning but chopped so drastically, bullet-speed-like, that you can hardly put together the fragments to have a narrative of any kind: you have the story of spy Z - inspired by the Australian-born Mossad agent prisoner X - Z's guard, the guard's mother, the General in coma - Ariel Sharon -, Farid's the Palestinian businessman in Berlin. 
You have a bit of a spy story, a kind of historical thread, with Sharon's memories about the founding of the country, even a love story. Maybe with so many variants of truth it is difficult to create a common story, aka co-existence, but isn't it a higher stake for a story?Somehow, I felt that the author is about to embark on a world mission to find the answers of most political secrets - for instance, how was it possible for Sharon to change so much his point of view and accept the Gush Katif - I personally think that it is less a secret but more a matter of adaptability, because politicians follow strategies and the cure for traumatic historical events. 
Intentionally or not, some scenes and episodes are ridiculoulsy grotesque, while others are just filling the space of the pages - like in the case of most of Farid story. 
Some topics are too big for one single story, and maybe if you want to avoid the cliche you better find more humanity and less politics and ideology to tell it. I was personally partially disappointed about the book which means that there is always a chance of a much better next book by Englander.
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Berlin 2002. A young Palestinian helps out a Canadian businessman to sail on one of the lakes. The more often they meet, the more intimate they get. Paris, the same year. Prisoner Z falls in love with a waitress. A young woman who turns out to be a super-rich daughter with unlimited opportunities. Israel 2014. The General is in hospital, dying, it is just a question of time until he passes away. The same year, the same country, but in a secret prison cell. Prisoner Z sets all his hopes on the General unsuspecting of the latter’s poor state of health. Slowly, all pieces fit together to narrate a story of spying and love in one of the most conflict-laden regions of the earth.


The short description of the novel was really appealing and promising. I was expecting a suspenseful and tedious story which brings the characters to their limit and in which they oscillate between ethical values and commitment to their country and personal interests and emotions. Yet, the plot is slowly flowing without any remarkable peaks in suspense. It took me quite some time to get an idea of the characters and their connection, how they relate isn’t obvious at all. 


The narrative style is quite enticing, the dialogues are vivid, also the presentation of the single characters is effective and thriving. However, due to the various places and side plots, the red thread got lost a bit. We have just fractions of the Israel history of which I really would have liked to read much more. Yet, as it is, there are a lot of narrative paths lain out which, unfortunately, nobody ever walked.
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I wanted to like this book way more than I did in the end. The plot sounds so intriguing: a prisoner being kept at a black site, his only friend a guard, and his only hope of survival an Israeli general who is in a coma. Other supporting stories add to the chaos of the heated conflict between Israel and Palestine. The story jumps around tons, both between perspectives and time periods. From before the capture of Prisoner Z, when he strikes up a fierce romance with an Italian woman in Paris, to being imprisoned for 12 years, we are filled in on the details of how it all came to be.

The issue I have is that nothing seemed to really fit together. Perhaps it was the constant time/character jumps, but the whole book felt disjointed. I would find myself getting lost as to what was going on, who was on what side, etc. I never found any of the relationships to be particularly believable, and some felt completely unnecessary to the plot. The character that I had the most connection to was Prisoner Z--his predicament was harsh and hard to not identify with. 

Although I found it to be lacking in certain areas, I have to say that it made me want to learn more about the Israel/Palestine conflict. I found the writing itself to be great in some areas, and once I got into it, it was a page turner. It had so much potential but just never felt like it really came together for me. I would be interested in picking up one of Englander's other books, though!
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I have to admit I was expecting something entirely different going into this novel that delves into the war and peace process between the States of Israel and Palestine which turned out to be, at times, tongue in cheek funny.
You have all of the ingredients here for a spy thriller with espionage and counter espionage, multiple time periods primarily 2002 and 2014, which the author deftly switches back and forth to weave a narrative of a disappeared prisoner z being held in a black site and the only person who knows where he is that can release him is the general. You also have brief love stories, history lessons etc...sorry that the words escape me to make this sound more like what it was. I loved the part the novel took it's title from, that I will not spoil.
Overall good enough for me to consider looking into this author's previous works and possibly recommend. Thank you to the publisher for providing this arc through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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There are a lot of people trying to escape in Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. In some cases, characters are trying to escape problems of their own making. In others, they’re trapped by someone else’s will. Watching these characters run as fast as they can and, mostly, get nowhere was a simultaneously frustrating and educational reading experience.

There is one man at the center of this novel: the General. The General is never given any other name but we know that he is a major figure in recent Israeli history and politics. After he suffers a stroke, his mind drifts through his past victories (as he would call them) and his sorrows. The General’s exploits include the Qibya Massacre and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. As we learn more about the General, we also learn about the plight of Prisoner Z, the irritations of his reluctant guard, the stubbornness of the General’s almost-like-family-assistant, and—later in the novel—a waitress and a mapmaker who got caught in the ripples of the General’s actions.

This book might have been a thriller, but it has a more literary feel. The plots move slowly and focus more on what the characters’ feel. There’s also a very hazy feeling to the scenes that made me feel like I was drifting with the General as he recalled his life or with Prisoner Z, who is slowly losing his mind in his prison cell somewhere in the Negev desert. This haziness and focus on emotional development creates an experience where I ended up thinking more about the unintended consequences of the General’s and Prisoner Z’s actions than about the original actions.

The theme of unintended consequences is reiterated by the waitress, the mapmaker, and Prisoner Z. The history of Israel and Palestine, even before Israel became a state, is full of tit for tat retaliation. An action was later avenged, which then itself had to be revenged by the original actor. For more than fifty years, Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other. People are avenging and fighting over things that happened before they were even born at this point, including some of the characters in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Over and over in this book, characters have the opportunity to meet each other in the middle—literally and metaphorically—only to fail to reach detente.

Which leads me back to my original observation that the characters in this book are all attempting to escape something. They are invariably trying to feel the consequences of Israel and Palestine’s long conflict, as embodied by the General. And they can’t do it. They can’t escape because their entire world is built on perpetuating the fighting.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that I didn’t understand at first. (I have my doubts that I actually got what these stories are trying to tell me.) Only later did the various plots and scenes started to make sense. This is the kind of novel that one has to sleep on (though I did appreciate the waitress’ role very much as I was reading). This is a sneaky novel.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.
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