Garry's Reviews > Sabra Zoo

Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller
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Nov 14, 11

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Read from November 07 to 13, 2011

Sabra Zoo was one of the best books that I have read in a very long time. It is the story of the Sabra massacre in Beirut, as told through the eyes of Ivan, an 18 year old with a Danish mother and Palestinian father. His parents were involved in an underground organisation before fleeing Lebanon, but Ivan has stayed on and tentatively follows in their footsteps. His real vocation though is as an interpreter at a hospital in the Sabra camp run by foreign medical volunteers - this is where the bulk of the story lies, and also most of its heart.

The strength of this novel is its characters, starting with Ivan himself. He's extremely popular with the ladies, and not just for his looks. He's sensitive and considerate and decent, but not cloyingly so. And all these traits that make him popular with the ladies also endear him to the reader. I liked Ivan, and enjoyed seeing the world (even THAT world) through his eyes.

But it's not just Ivan that is likeable. Every character feels real, and every character is sympathetic - I suppose this is possible when the 'villains' of the story are the faceless and unseen forces behind the butchery described. From European doctors and nurses who have left behind comfortable lives to try to make a difference in such an environment, to American journalists who take footage that they know can't be seen on mealtime news broadcasts, to locals who risk everything for the honorable causes they believe in: they are all well-drawn characters, and Hiller could have chosen any one of them as the focal point of his story. I kept thinking about the support cast, imagining the world from their eyes too. That's surely a sign of a great novel.

I'll finish with a short passage that I feel demonstrates both the horror and the heart of Sabra Zoo. Ivan is relaying the conversation at a gathering of the hospital volunteers, including this passage from the small Indian doctor with beautiful white teeth...

Asha's voice was measured and calm compared to Liv's. 'Do you remember that man in the field hospital who lost fourteen members of his family all at once?' There were nods around the table. He was a big man whose apartment took a direct hit from a rocket that killed everyone in it apart from him. He'd been impaled on the railing three floors down after being blown from his house.

'Every day', she continued, 'he would sit with anyone who had no visitors or was feeling depressed or just come out of surgery. He would talk to them, play cards with them, fetch them water or food.' She hesitated and refilled her glass with water. 'He would hold their hands.' She looked at us and smiled. 'That's love,' she said, 'the rest of it is just...' She waved her hands dismissively.
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