Review: The Falafel King is Dead

A family faces fortune's slings and arrows


By Sara Shilo
Portobello, £12.99

This multi-award-winning novel is Sara Shilo's first venture into adult literature and, judging by the acclaim that has greeted its publication, it will not be her last. She takes a long, bleak look at one day in the life of the Dadon family, living in a small town in northern Israel.

The six children and their mother, Simona, have more to worry about than the threat of constant rocket attacks from Lebanon; they are still coming to terms with the loss of the father of the family - Mas'ud, the "falafel king" of the title. Told from the perspective of Simona and four of her children (the youngest are twins, born after the death of Mas'ud), Shilo's tale paints a harsh picture of life in a lesser-known Israel, away from the glamour and bustle of the big cities.

For Simona, working ceaselessly to care for her children, all joy in life has died together with her husband. She even welcomes the thought of a missile killing her so that she may be re-united with him.

The children struggle through their own mourning process: Kobi, the eldest, assumes the mantle of head of the household, even though it brings him to breaking point. Working in a factory, he dreams of escaping to a better way of life with a fine apartment for his mother. Itzik, the disabled son, finds refuge in caring for a bird with his younger brother Dudi. It is only Etti, the teenage daughter, who recognises the big, concealed lie that Shilo skilfully weaves throughout the narrative. It is Etti who ultimately finds the courage to confront it and unmask the truth.

All their emotions come to the fore in a single day which sees a missile strike on the town. Shilo writes with a raw power, whether she is describing the pain of childbirth or the fear of terrorist attacks. Her characters speak bluntly and to the point (even the rhythm and tone of how Israelis speak is precisely captured - by an unnamed translator), but she manages to find hope and love, too, in the Dadons' lives.

It is this combination that makes this novel so memorable and moving.

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