Review: No refuge from racism

This fictional thriller seems shockingly real


Liad Shoham's enjoyable, taut and pacy thriller Asylum City (Scribe, £8.99) is set around the African migrant community in Tel Aviv, and - after the recent riots in Israel involving Ethiopians demonstrating against mistreatment by the police - it seems shockingly real.

Michal Poleg is a young aid worker trying to help the Eritrean refugees who have settled alongside the old bus station in Tel Avi after surviving the perilous journey from Africa. She is a committed idealist who doesn't care whom she antagonises.

When she is brutally murdered, the suspects mount up. Was it the state attorney whom she accused of helping to deport her friend back to Ethiopia and certain death? Was it the Israeli gangsters she confronted, criminals who offer the Africans financial help only to steal away their meagre savings. Could it have even been her family, in a bitter row over a disputed will?

Spoilt for choice is investigating officer Anat Nachmias, who is on her first homicide. Like Michal, she is driven and committed. Unlike Michal, she is aware of the need not to alienate absolutely everyone around her, despite severe provocation from male colleagues.

She smells a rat when Michal's close friend Gabriel, an aspiring Eritrean artist, confesses to the murder. But the detective has to summon all her resolve to go against her bosses in pursuit of the real killer.

When she is brutally murdered, the suspects mount up

The fate of refugees and asylum-seekers in western countries is, of course, one of the key subjects of Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, author of the Kurt Wallander books.Here, Shoham lifts the lid on a beleaguered minority at the bottom of Israeli society, exposing the racism they suffer. Depending on handouts to supplement their low pay from menial jobs, they are the lucky ones having escaped forced conscription or virtual slavery in their home countries.

UK readers might share Anat's shock at this underbelly in the middle of prosperous Tel Aviv.

Shoham, who has 11 books to his credit, is sometimes referred to as Israel's John Grisham because of his career as a lawyer. He writes in a stripped-down, unfussy style in short, sharp chapters which makes the story fly along.

There's a satisfying twist at the end, which you don't see coming, and a measure of romance along the way as Anat falls for Itai, the manager of a migrant refuge.

One quibble, though: Shoham makes life difficult for the reader by giving several male characters names beginning with Y - Yaron, Yariv, Yochai, Yiftach, Yavin. It's confusing, at least at first.

But that's forgiveable in a book that effectively highlights a social problem without diluting the murder mystery in which it comes wrapped.

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