Review: Forbidden Love in St Petersburg

Contrasting states of love and espionage


By Mishka Ben-David
Halban Publishers, £10.99

Mishka Ben-David abandoned a PhD in Hebrew literature to join the Mossad. His most famous assignment was a botched attempt to assassinate Hamas's leader, Khaled Meshaal. After 12 years, he left and became a thriller-writer. This is his second novel to appear in English (it was originally published in Hebrew in 2008).

Forbidden Love is really two books in one. The first tells the story of Yogev Ben-Ari, a young Israeli who has joined the Mossad. He is madly in love with Orit, who is more concerned with their relationship and starting a family than with the Mossad or the state. The story becomes a clash of loyalties: love, or the state?

The second half of the novel follows Ben-Ari to St Petersburg on another mission for the Mossad. He falls in love with Anna, a bookshop owner - or is she a Russian spy? Ben-David carefully places clues through the story but leaves the reader in suspense.

The Russian part of the story is far more engrossing than the first. The love story is more compelling, as is the conflict between love and state (should he stay in Russia with his new lover or serve his country?), and there is genuine suspense - the novel finally becomes a thriller. It also becomes more interesting in other ways. It becomes a study of loneliness. Both Yogev and Anna, his Russian lover, are desperately lonely: he's divorced, she's widowed, both are childless.

The last 50 pages are by far the best - 300 pages could have been cut

They are both left hanging in an empty world where service to the state does not seem fulfilling enough.

In this second section, the book also becomes a more interesting study of double lives. Yogev constantly goes undercover, taking on new identities. At one point, he has three names and three passports. How does this affect his sense of his own identity? He feels a constant outsider but nowhere more than when he is home in Israel. At crucial points in the novel, he wonders if he belongs anywhere.

The last 50 pages are by far the best as the plot tightens, the suspense grows and all kinds of mysteries thicken. Will Yogev and Anna ever find happiness together? If so, where? In Israel or in Russia?

Sadly, this is a novel which needed radical editing; 300 pages could have been cut. It deserved a better cover and a better title, though neither would have saved a book that is never better than Le Carré lite.

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