As Kindles and other digital readers become more widely available – and affordable – many first-time authors are opting to self-publish. This may presage a change in the nature of the “vanity press” – long recognized as the preserve of self-indulgent scribblers and their unreadable screed.
Self-publishing may lose its stigma but, unsurprisingly, the standard of many self-published novels remains fairly low.
Yet digital self-publishing also presents an affordable way to share genuinely interesting books considered hard to market by commercial publishers. Alexander McNabb’s “Olives – A Violent Romance” is one of them.
McNabb turned to self-publishing after 10 years of submitting his work to agents and publishers had earned him nothing more than 250 rejection letters. And it’s lucky for the public that he did.
Despite its unfortunate title, which smacks of domestic violence, his thriller “Olives – a Violent Romance” is well written with a compelling plot line. It’s hard to imagine why McNabb struggled to find a publisher.
Set in Jordan, the novel is narrated by a disgraced English journalist, Paul Stokes, who moves to Amman to work on a startup magazine for the Natural Resources Ministry.
Stokes is drawn into a complex political struggle involving the Jordanian, Israeli and British governments, centering on water privatization in Jordan and its ramifications for the surrounding region. Central to this crucial issue is the Palestinian family of Aisha, Stokes’ colleague, with whom he falls in love.
Minutes after his arrival in Jordan, Stokes becomes embroiled in a drunken altercation with a Jordanian policeman. His terror of doing time in a Jordanian prison leaves him open to blackmail from an odious British spy named Gerald Lynch, and indebted to Aisha and her family, who may or may not be carrying out a series of deadly bombings in Israel.
McNabb does an excellent job of making Stokes an unreliable narrator. He is ill-informed, breathtakingly tactless and uniformly self-serving. Though he feels he has no choice in capitulating to Lynch’s demands, as he is drawn ever deeper into violence and intrigue, readers may find themselves asking why he doesn’t just leave Jordan while he still can.
Stokes’ actions make the situation worse at every turn, endangering everybody around him. Though he thinks himself an adroit double agent, it is clear to the reader that he’s being manipulated by those who know exactly what he is doing.
His cluelessness is rendered ironic by Aisha’s mocking nickname for him: “The Clever Brit,” and other Arab characters’ repeated references to the “cunning British.”
Adroit with dramatic irony, McNabb cleverly ensures that the reader sometimes has a greater grasp of what’s happening than the hapless Stokes, who initially knows very little about the Middle East.
In some ways McNabb’s unreliable narrator is reminiscent of Richard, the narrator in Alex Garland’s best-selling thriller “The Beach.”
Fans of fiction with an unusual first-person voice will enjoy “Olives,” in which Stokes relates events he does not fully understand, making it impossible to guess the truth behind the novel’s many twists and turns.
The plot also contains several notable parallels to Ridley Scott’s 2008 film “Body of Lies,” also set in Jordan. In both stories the main character is an outsider, out of his depth in an unfamiliar environment. Both are manipulated to further the competing state interests – Jordanian and otherwise – and are unsure whom to trust.
Yet McNabb’s novel is not unoriginal. Its focus on the issue of water privatization in Jordan and the relationship between Stokes and Aisha’s Palestinian family provides an uncommon perspective on Israeli-Palestinian relations.
At the end of the day “Olives” is a thriller and the plot and characters at times verge on cliche – with bombs, spies, beautiful women, political scandals and blackmail at every turn. Yet the novel’s vivid characterization and sharp dialogue keeps it believable and engaging. An element of black humor gives it a gently satirical appeal.
McNabb’s major achievement is that he manages to present the historical background in an even-handed and entertaining way, seamlessly weaving it into the action so that the reader learns along with the narrator. This is helpful to readers unfamiliar with the region, and provides a new angle for those who know it well.
The author’s next novel “Beirut” will be published in November. The book is a thriller set in Lebanon, the author says, and will feature Gerald Lynch, the British spy in “Olives.” It will be interesting to see what he does with Lebanon’s complicated religious and political makeup, and what role the British will play in Lebanon’s affairs.
In the meantime, “Olives – A Violent Romance” is well worth a read – in spite of its uninspiring title and cover. Its breakneck pace will keep the pages turning long into the night. Though not perfect, it’s unusually sophisticated for a first novel, a self-published work that is informative, exciting and well written.
The Daily Star