Isabella Hammad’s second novel, “Enter Ghost,” begins as the title suggests — with an entry. London-based Palestinian actress Sonia Nasir clears security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport more smoothly than she expected she would, with just one quick strip search.
She is traveling to Haifa for the first time since childhood, raw from heartbreak and wanting to confide in her elder sister. Yet the siblings’ prickly relationship leaves Sonia adrift in the apartment almost immediately, unsure of her welcome and ruminating on the discovery that their uncle has sold their family’s house to an Israeli buyer and moved away. When an abrasive friend, Mariam, turns up and makes it known that she needs a Queen Gertrude for her West Bank production of “Hamlet,” Sonia allows herself to get pulled in. As she begins to confront her complex guilt about her politically unencumbered life in England, the “Hamlet” production reels her to the heart of the political tensions in the region, which hit a flash point in the play’s Bethlehem setting.
“Hamlet” plays a central role in the novel in more ways than one. The title of “Enter Ghost” is drawn from William Shakespeare’s stage directions, when King Hamlet’s ghost commands his son to seek justice in their rotten kingdom. The novel’s storyline is fraught with similar strife — between lovers, family members, and the Israeli “inside” and West Bank “outside” — and it posits a spectral third way, which Hammad illustrates through a central motif of crossing between worlds. Sonia animates her transitory role by bringing a keen eye for subtleties, both as the novel’s narrator and as an experienced performer. Her body is often the subject of detailed writing about intimacy and freedom — her difficulties with lovers, pregnancies and misogyny twine through the novel’s wider conflicts.
Hammad is a rigorous researcher, and in “Enter Ghost,” she offers a remarkably direct rendering of the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The story takes place against tensions following the real-life 2017 fatal shooting of two Israeli police officers in the complex called the Noble Sanctuary by Muslims and the Temple Mount by Jews, and the resulting civil unrest boils steadily around the novel’s plot — but never overtakes it. As the cast attempts to rehearse Shakespeare in classical Arabic on their lavish outdoor stage beside Bethlehem’s separation wall, the Israeli government intimidates, restricts funding to and lets its military interfere with the venture.
Fiction has an uneasy relationship with politics, and American writing in particular tends to avoid the Palestinian issue — a problem identified in the text as “largely a case of preaching to the deaf and to the choir.” It’s an obstacle Hammad negotiated in her 2019 debut, “The Parisian” (about British Mandate Palestine), which established her as a writer with an uncanny combination of skills. She is at once able to trace broad social and historical terrains without losing her grasp of particulars, giving a surgical finesse to her writing about the human personality. Her style is often labeled “exquisite.” These skills put her in the company of other postcolonial literary novelists such as Ahdaf Soueif and Abraham Verghese; and like “In the Eye of the Sun” and “Cutting for Stone,” “The Parisian” sprawls to nearly 600 pages. But something different, sparer and clever is happening with “Enter Ghost,” thanks to Hammad’s adaptation of a Western play.
The plot’s structure takes shape around the basic actions of a theatrical production: casting, read-through, rehearsals and performance, along with sideline dramas among cast members. From this relatively simple setup, parallels between “Hamlet” and the novel emerge, through such themes as treachery, plays-within-plays, a family divided and a state in turmoil. You don’t, however, need to be a Shakespeare buff to appreciate this reimagined classic — Mariam and her cast explicitly discuss how malleable the play is in its West Bank setting. The novel is aware of its fourth wall without seeming coy, and the occasional writing in script format is unexpected and exciting. It succeeds, too, in rising beyond a specific ekphrasis to a wider meditation on the exchange between a work of art and its context. As tens of thousands of Muslims, including agnostic Sonia, gather to protest the security measures at al-Haram al-Sharif (Arabic for the Noble Sanctuary) by praying in the streets, Sonia thinks, “Our play needed the protests, but the protests did not need our play.”
Core theatrical ideas about catharsis, audience, and comedy and tragedy (manifested as absurdity) get at what it means for Sonia to authentically participate in something that feels bigger than herself. In one brief but memorably humorous scene, the novel also attempts to get under the skin of what Israel is to its soldiers, when Sonia encounters a British-Israeli teen guarding a checkpoint. Her very English outrage startles him from his role as an Israeli Defense Forces soldier “defending my people” and into that of a teenager defending himself against accusations of being from Manchester. Mixed identities are everywhere, as are everyday performances, and they give the novel nuance that resists easy categorization.
Although “Enter Ghost” sometimes seems to fret about its ethics, such as the attention paid to Palestinians while other conflicts, like the one in Yemen, struggle for international attention, it succeeds as that rare fictive project that invites several audiences to pay attention. Or in Hamlet’s words, “The play is the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
"Enter Ghost," Isabella Hammad's sophomore effort, is the story of Sonia, an actress living in London who returns to her Palestinian homeland in the wake of a messy breakup to visit her sister Haneen, and ends up joining the cast of a West Bank production of "Hamlet." I had read and enjoyed Hammad's debut, "The Parisian," and "Enter Ghost" has the same beautiful prose and complicated historical setting as her earlier novel. This one, however, is much more formally daring--swathes of it are written in script form, for example--and in the end didn't feel as fully formed and engaging as "The Parisian." Still--an interesting idea for a novel (I loved the "Hamlet" discussions) and I took away fresh insights into the Palestine/Israel conflict.
Thank you to NetGalley and to Grove Press for providing me with an ARC of this title in return for my honest review.
Enter Ghost is, on its surface, the story of Sonia Nasir, a London actress taking the summer off and visiting her sister Haneen who lives in the family’s ancestral city of Haifa. So much is wrapped up in that sentence. And so much lives beyond the surface. Sonia is escaping a love affair and seeking a closer relationship with her older sister, who teaches at an Israeli university. Once she arrives in Israel, she regains a fuller awareness of being Palestinian.
Shortly after her arrival, Sonia meets her sister’s friend Mariam who is in the process of casting and producing Hamlet in Arabic on the West Bank. No! Sonia is not available to act in the play but she will help. But Sonia’s plans change and through her, we readers begin to see the complexities of existence for Palestinians anywhere in the Israeli sphere of influence as the various cast members make their plans to meet each day, if possible.
There are multiple layers to this book, as there are multiple types of ghosts being experienced. The ghosts of Hamlet are only the most obvious, but there are communal ghosts of Palestinian history and of Israeli history also. Ghosts of Sonia and Haneen’s family that haven’t been dealt with. Then there are the ghosts of Sonia’s past. Sonia is a confusing and seemingly confused and conflicted woman, unsure of herself at this possible turning point.
I liked this book but found it difficult at times chiefly because Sonia is a difficult character to understand. Why she responds as she does at times leaves me wondering. But then I remind myself that many of us are works in progress. I hope she finds her place.
The author writes well and is able to capture feelings and sense of place very well. She has also written some very realistic scenes of emotional tension and release throughout the novel. Recommended to those looking for a different read.
Rating 3.5* rounded to 4*
Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for an e-copy of this book.
(Whoops, I just realised I'm supposed to post stuff here!) I loved "Enter Ghost". It's very difficult to write a book about the Israeli occupation and what that means for Palestinians without falling into sentimentalism, but Isabella Hammad pulls it off with aplomb. It's a slightly hazier novel than "The Parisian," but as compassionate and thoughtful. Impressive to me is how it's still stylistically beautiful, but differently to her other work.
"Enter Ghost" centres on Sonia, a British-Palestinian actress who's past her "ideal" starlet years who escapes a disastrous relationship in London by returning to Palestine. Her right to "return" while others cannot forms the heart of Sonia's struggle, the tension from which the Palestinian struggle for political and human rights arises.
You'll get more out of it if you're British, Palestinian, or both, since some scenes are largely reliant on subtext, but it's a novel well worth reading. Probably my favourite this year, so far.
This book started out interesting, but unfortunately it didn’t continue that way. Sonia and Haneen are sisters. Sonia just returned after 20 years to her homeland, Palestine. Haneen lives in Haifa and works at a university in Tel Aviv. Haneen’s friend talks Sonia into staying and act in a performance of Hamlet. For me, there was too much politics, too much Shakespeare, none of which I am looking for when reading a book for pleasure. Three stars for me.
I received a complimentary copy, opinions are my own.
Loved the prose, beautiful, heartbreaking, haunting! I want to live inside the world that Hammad creates, the sentences she weaves! Hamlet and Palestine — Politics and Art — loved this book
Enter Ghost is the kind of novel that on paper, is exactly my kind of read. Novels focusing on alienated women who travel somewhere they both feel like they belong to but do not, such as The Human Zoo and The Far Field, tend to appeal to me and so do main characters who are a combination of pathetic, churlish, and selfish. And yet, Sonia, our central character, manages to be not only painfully uninteresting, despite her attempts at fashioning herself as interesting and oblique, but profoundly annoying. I am sure that this was to some extent the desired extent but the narrative does suggest that she is far more complex and fascinating a figure than she actually is. Not only did I find her boring and obnoxious but there were several instances where I had a hard time 'buying' into her. She presents herself as this somewhat jaded and remote actor with a tendency to be in relationships with questionable power dynamics (she has an affair with the director of a play she was starring in), but more often than not her internal monologue and her responses to other people's words and actions struck me as sanctimonious and affected.
Still, I am not about to dissuade prospective readers from giving Enter Ghost a chance given that YMMV. If this novel is on your radar I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Sonia Nasir, our narrator, is an actress in her late thirties who decides to visit her older sister Haneen in Haifa both to escape tribulations of the heart and, having not visited since the second intifada, to reconnect with her heritage. While Haneen returned to become a teacher, Sonia remained in London to build her acting career. In Haifa, their relationship is uneasy, as their attempts at having meaningful conversations often lead to disagreements and recriminations. As Sonia attempts to form a new understanding of Palestine, she finds herself looking to her past, in particular, a traumatic experience during her adolescence there. Despite Haneen’s lukewarm welcome, Sonia does meet through her Mariam, a director who is working on a production of Hamlet in the West Bank. For all her protestations, and her perplexing not-so-warm feelings toward Mariam, Sonia finds herself travelling to Ramallah with her to play the part of Gertrude. There she meets the other actors, one of whom she is particularly attracted to.
Their production however faces many obstacles, from the long drives and alienating checkpoints they have to go through, but they are all too aware of the ever-encroaching possibility of violence, persecution, and oppression at the hands of Israeli authorities. Mariam’s own brother has come under 'suspicion', and her connection to him may pose a danger to their production. However, Mariam, who believes that their play can be a form of resistance, is determined to make the play work, regardless of outside forces and internecine disputes.
Before I move on to what I did not like about Enter Ghost, I will mention what was effective: Isabella Hammad manages to give readers both an overview of contemporary Palestine and a more intimate close-up of the everyday experiences of Palestinians who continue to live under oppression. The confusion, uncertainty, and anger felt by many of her characters are articulated with clarity and acuity. I also appreciated the author’s exploration of displacement, (multi)heritage, and the way she is able to articulate the confusion and sadness that are specific to feeling, or being made to feel, like an outsider in your own culture. Hammad also shows the divide between Palestinians living ‘inside’ Israel and those in the West Bank, without resorting to easy categorisations. So, when it comes to rendering time and place, Hammad certainly demonstrates a skilled hand.
What ultimately made the book a chore was its protagonist, a character that I found improbable, in that her internal monologue was full of anachronism that did not make her into a more realistic character, but an unconvincing actor ("He drew nearer and I shrugged, shrinking with embarrassment and virginity"/"I was ready to be outraged if he kissed me. I imagined his pillowy lips"). That she is under the impression of being this complex and ambiguous person, made her hammy performance all the more egregious. She has so many chips on her shoulder you might as well order an aperitif while you are reading this. I can think of so many books that succeed in portraying the uneasy bond between two sisters who spend a lot of their time bickering and snapping at each other, both of whom believe that the other has had an easier time or is more adjusted than they are, examples being Sunset and Yolk. But here Haneen and Sonia's interactions were stilted in a way that did not seem convincing. That is not me saying that they needed to be close, far from. In fact, I was expecting the narrative to explore how the physical distance between them as well as the diverging paths they took in life caused or contributed to the emotional rift between them. But this didn’t really come through. Their fights just didn’t ring true to me (if they did to you, ben per te) and their dynamic was just underwhelming. And so for the matter was Sonia and Mariam’s ‘friendship’. Sonia spends most of the narrative painting M as being an unpleasant yet fascinating figure, yet, suddenly, we are to believe she cares for her deeply. I never understood her enmity towards Mariam, at one point she describes her as possessing a "straightforward, repugnant, magnetic light"...and it just seemed uncalled for and random to be honest.
And the play...I wasn’t expecting chunks of actual Hamlet to make up the narrative but they do. Not only that but the narrative switches to a play/script format more than once even during scenes where the characters are not rehashing. Maybe this will appeal to others readers, but I found this meta choice to be jarring and not particularly suited to the tone of the narrative.
Maybe the rehearsals themselves could have been more interesting if the people taking part were fleshed out, but they are not. Early on the author uses actual character introductions in a way that seems a cop-out at actually ‘showing/establishing’ their personalities and personal histories in a more natural way over the course of the narrative. It did not help that Sonia fails to really see most of them as people, especially the two younger men, for who she has some motherly feelings, and she uses to make points about the male ego. It’s a pity that they are not given more of a voice but flattened to fit Sonia and even Mariam's discourses and theories on male youth, masculinity, and rivalries.
Very early on Sonia makes a move on of the actors in a way that was cringe and pathetic, but not in a funny or relatable way, but I later on came to understand that Sonia really thinks she is an intriguing figure ("I had a marketably unusual appearance, or so they said"). Being in Sonia’s head was a tiresome affair as I felt mostly annoyed by her self-pitying, her dull observations and assumptions about other people, as well as her painfully cliched love life.
I would have liked for the story to remain more focused on Sonia’s relationships with her family, her sister and dad in particular, who are often sidelined in favor of Sonia’s navel-gazing, her career retrospective, her farcical projections, whereby Sonia attributes unconvincing motivations and traits people around her, and flashbacks that are clearly meant to make us feel bad for her.
The story slowly inches its way forward with few if any emotionally satisfying beats. The main character, despite her self-dramatizing, is a sulky bore, and the people around her never come into focus. Still, even if I found this novel wanting in terms of storyline and character development, Enter Ghost is not an ‘empty’ read as it is a novel that deals with oppression and revolution, and interrogates nations and identities that are displaced and fragmented. I just wish that the author had not created such a boring and unbelievable character and one who fails so spectacularly to be amusing, insightful, and/or interesting.
The story feels drawn out and the prose at times tries to be oblique and complex but succeeds only in unnecessarily over-elaborate.
The glimpses into their theatrical production and theatre, in general, tended to be more interesting but were more often than not ruined b Sonia's obnoxious explanations and truisms. A lot of the dialogues were stilted, and even if the characters now and again do say something that is 'convincing', they remain thinly rendered figures.
I wish that the author had committed more fully to making Sonia into more of a mystifying and detached figure, but it seemed that she did not fully want to commit to making her into a flawed, destructive even, person. Ironically, her attempts at making us feel bad for Sonia, by showing us that her family left her out of the loop and those times shitty men treated her badly (who could have predicted that), only succeeded in making her into a bland shade of 'unlikeable'.
I can't see myself re-reading this in order to see if my not liking this book is a case of right book/wrong time but the occasion might rise where I am stranded on a deserted island and this is the only book at hand...
Like I said above, don't take my review to heart given that you may click with Sonia or Hammad's storytelling in a way that I wasn't able to.
Enter Ghost – Isabella Hammad
And in the end, onstage, most pain reads the same. You sort of only need one bad thing to happen to you and you’re set for life.
Sonia is a British-Palestinan, thirty-something actress coming out of an affair with her theatre director, who decides to visit her sister Haneen in Haifa. Whilst there, she is roped into a West Bank production of Hamlet, produced by Haneen’s sister Miriam. Through interactions with the other actors, Israeli authorities, and her family in Palestine, Sonia must face up to her personal past and that of her country, a story of resistance and oppression.
What this book does well is show the ordinary lives of Palestinians, the surveillance, arbitrary stops and simmering anger, close up and in rich detail. Hammad does a great job of showing how different characters react to this constant pressure, the lingering effects rooted in the past (this book taught me a lot about “48ers” if nothing else).
I also liked the idea of theatre and Hamlet as metaphor, a sense of feeling like an outsider in your own home which the characters directly apply to their own situation. At points the book almost takes a meta-approach, the book switching to a play format replete with stage directions, which I found interesting if not wholly successful.
My biggest criticism is Sonia herself. She is the character I cared about the least, and her interactions with other characters, not least Haneen and Miriam, never felt entirely believable. This may be a deliberate choice, given that Sonia is an actress, but it made parts of this book a chore. Granted, I was gripped at the end as the production of Hamlet approached, but that was down to great plotting far more than any feelings towards the performers herself.
Really torn on recommending this one. Its sense of time and place is fantastic, and I came away far more enlightened about Palestinian life. I suppose it will depend on how far you get on with Sonia as a slightly off-putting, stiff protagonist.
My thanks to @atlanticbooks and @netgalley for my ARC of this book, published on 4th April.
This was okay but overall a disappointment for me after Hammad’s first novel. I found the pacing slow and the characters not super well-defined. The story was interesting in parts but I felt it could have used a tighter edit.
Fans of literary fiction- and Hamlet- will welcome this novel of a woman who returns to Palestine, her home she has consciously avoided for years. Sonia left and has established a life in London, as did her sister Haneen, but Haneen has been back for several years and now teaches at the unversity. Sonia's an actress and when she's introduced to Miriam, who is staging a production of Hamlet, she's excited at the prospect of playing Gertrude. Know that Hammad includes a great deal Hamlet here - always a pleasure to read- and that for some, like me, it might detract from the story of Sonia and her family. It seems odd to write but I sped through Shakespeare to get to more about the contemporary characters. Others have praised the writing but I found it a little overblown in spots. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC. A worthy read.
Enter Ghost is a masterpiece of acuity, erudition, and reflection. It dissolves the occupied and occupier dichotomy to reveal the humanity that escapes us too often"
Sonia is a British-Palestinian actress who returns to Haifa ostensibly to visit her sister, but also to try to connect with heritage. and the fact that she has not been there since the 1990s. She wants to relax and recover from a love affair gone wrong, but a friend of her sister's pulls her into a production of "Hamlet." She's not sure why she agreed, especially when she experiences how frustrating and dangerous it is to mount any sort of Arabic theater in Israel--the checkpoints, long drives, endless waits, and occasional violence. The director and actors see this production as an act of defiance.
I enjoyed Isabella Hammad's "The Parisian" and was eager to dive into "Enter Ghost." However, the novel never took with me, probably because of the character of Sonia, who is just not appealing. She seems to have a good career in the UK, and enviable blend of stage, screen, and TV, but she's unsatisfied, restless. She gets to Haifa and her awkward interactions with family are painful. They don't seem to click with her either, even though they welcome her warmly. She's the focus of the story, and she's hard to care about.
You will like this book if you want t glimpse into the daily lives of Palestinians and the intractability of both sides of the conflict. None of the characters will grab your heart and make you care, which is what makes you read. I look forward to Hammad's next book.
"Enter Ghost" has a lot going for it, but the novel never gelled with me and didn't pull me in.
I was eager to read Enter Ghost and to see how the author overlapped the current crises facing Palestinians and the use of Hamlet as a tool to explore those crises, but this book never gelled for me. I found it a very slow read, and I never reached a moment when it pulled me in. The prose is quite capable, so I'm thinking those with different tastes than mine might find it impressive.
I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher; the opinions are my own.
This is what I would call a slow read but not in a negative way. I found myself lingering over every sentence and savoring the writing. Or googeling historical events as to better understand the situation in Palestine and the West Bank. Sonia lives in London and visits her sister who lives in Haifa for an extended stay. She meets local director Mariam who is staging Hamlet in Arabic in the West Bank and asks Sonia to play the part of Gertrude.
this was such a good book, it was what I was I was looking for from this description. I really enjoyed the way Isabella Hammad wrote this. I loved getting to know Sonia Nasir as she was a interesting character. I was invested in what was going on, it was beautifully done. I can't wait to read more from Isabella Hammad.
"A year before our father left for Paris, Maher was shot by a Lebanese militiaman outside the camp. When Haneen said this, something sparked in my memory. I had known my father had a friend who was shot in Lebanon. But I’d absorbed the information sideways."
Isabella Hammad is the award winning writer of The Parisian. Enter Ghost is her second novel and a contemporary story focusing upon Palestine - the daily lives of Palestinians under occupation.
I am personally very interested in the Palestine situation and this book assisted with providing more background and emotional investment.
In Enter Ghost we meet an establish director/actress Sonia who returns home to Palestine to visit her sister Haneen. While Sonia has lived in London, Haneen has made her life in Palestine. Sonia is reeling from her recent breakup and experiences difficulties acclimating to contemporary Palestine. When she meets a local director she is swept into an project to bring Hamlet to the West Bank. She feels she has found her people and happily takes on the role of Gertrude. The actors pour their souls into bringing Shakespeare amid violence, poverty and displacement. Will they be successful?
If you are interested in Palestine, Shakespeare, social justice and underdogs or are just ready for a nuanced and poetic story, Enter Ghost is for you!
What strikes me the most--and really, what impressed me the most--about Enter Ghost is its writing. Everything that works about this novel works because its writing does, and everything I can say about its writing I can also say of it as a novel more broadly. Hammad's writing, here, is incisive, measured, restrained. More to the point, it is distinctly unsentimental and yet always sympathetic. It's a very sensitive novel in the way it's attuned to the nuances of its characters, especially its narrator, Sonia; it gives you such a strong sense of the fine gradations of these characters' reactions, thoughts, and feelings. That is, it's a precisely written novel because it is a sensitively written one, and it's a sensitively written novel because it is a precisely written one. It pays attention to the details, gives them the space to matter, so that the more you read the novel the more those details get added to each other, and the more richly layered the story becomes.
One part of the novel where I think this sensitivity especially shines is in the strained relationship between Sonia and her older sister, Haneen. The whole story begins with Sonia landing in Haifa, having decided to take the summer off to spend time with Haneen, who works at a university there. The relationship between these two sisters is one of the pillars of the novel: there is so much unsaid between Sonia and Haneen, and across their interactions, you get a sense for the contours of the issues they are tiptoeing around--their family, their distance, their history--but not necessarily of the full substance of those issues. They clearly care about each other, and yet many of their moments hint at a tension that, as the novel moves forward, we're waiting to boil over. And it is exactly in those moments--the tipping points when the tensions finally boil over--where Hammad's writing is especially effective. Hammad manages to write Big Scenes that feel important but not overblown, moving but never sentimental. So many of the most memorable moments in Enter Ghost are memorable not because they are filled to the brim, but because they are restrained--and because they are restrained, they are able to resonate in the true sense of the word: to reverberate, to move outwards, to linger.
Thematically, Enter Ghost is such a rich novel, too. It's about a West Bank production of Hamlet, so the question of the role of art in political resistance is very much at the forefront of the story, though certainly not in any hackneyed or simplistic way. The characters are acutely alive to this question, and think critically about what they want to accomplish not just with their production, but with their production of Hamlet specifically. A lot of the novel's substance is concentrated into this production--the politics, of course, but also the thematic concerns, the conflict, the characters, their dynamics, their backstories--and this ultimately makes it such a potent and fascinating lodestone for the story. I loved the way Hammad incorporated scenes from Hamlet into key character and story moments; I loved the camaraderie--but also the tension--between all the cast members; I loved Mariam, their brilliant director; and I just loved the way theatre as a whole provided such fertile ground for this story to go in all kinds of compelling and thought-provoking directions.
Moving, deftly written, and with a layered, distinct sense of its narrator's interiority, Enter Ghost is an excellent novel. Needless to say, I will be reading anything else that Isabella Hammad decides to write next.
Thanks so much to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an eARC of this via NetGalley!