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Review: The Red Balcony, by Jonathan Wilson
Schocken, 2023. 274 pp. $27

In March 1933, a Jewish resident of Palestine is murdered on a beach by two men. His widow, the only eyewitness, changes her testimony several times within hours, variously claiming that the assailants were Arabs, not Jews, and vice versa. Either answer would have been plausible politically, for her late husband was a marked man, hated on all sides.

His crime? Having negotiated with Josef Goebbels, propaganda minister in the newly installed Nazi government, a plan by which German Jews might emigrate to Palestine while retaining a modicum of their assets, contrary to the policy in force of stripping everything they have.

Despite the publisher’s statement that The Red Balcony has historical basis, I find the story of such negotiations dubious. But whether they took place doesn’t matter. If they did, some Jews in Palestine would have strenuously objected to dealing with the Nazis, whereas Arabs would have opposed further Jewish immigration. Those circumstances provide a motive for murder.

British troops disperse Arab rioters, October 1933, American Colony (Jerusalem), Photo Department, location unclear (courtesy Library of Congress; public domain)

Into this maelstrom drops Ivor Castle, a British Jew who has come to Palestine against his better judgment. Trained in law, Ivor has a solid sense of right and wrong, which his new surroundings test to the utmost. He’s assigned to help the well-known Phineas Baron defend two Russian-Jewish immigrants accused of the murder. That means Ivor does the legwork, while Phineas hobnobs with British colonial officials.

A key witness for the defense promises to be Tsiona Kerem, an artist who frequents a café where the accused claim they were drinking at the time of the murder. If Ivor can get Tsiona to corroborate their testimony, they’ll go free. But she flatly refuses to tell him anything.

Instead, she sleeps with him multiple times, tantalizing him but declaring plainly that he’ll never get what he wants from her, which could refer to love, not just the statement that would free his clients. Already in love, or thinking he is, Ivor dares not press her, because whenever he does, she withdraws, which pains him greatly.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Ivor’s not her only lover. It doesn’t help that Palestine seems like a corrupt, lawless place to him, despite its allure and magnificence—and, by the way, that the defendants are probably guilty.

There’s little mystery involved here, then, but that doesn’t matter. The Red Balcony often reads like a thriller, and even though worlds aren’t at stake, the pages turn rapidly, as reversals come thick and fast. I like the wry humor, as Ivor repeatedly gets himself in hot water, a Jewish innocent abroad who can’t figure out his identity, even in the one place in the world where he might feel whole.

The political differences among his coreligionists baffle him too, and well they might. The groups they represent seem like precursors of those that would barely tolerate each other during the fight for independence in 1947-48.

By contrast, Baron, also Jewish, doesn’t even bother to try to figure out who he is, instead playing different roles, depending on whom he’s with. To Ivor, he avows his resentment of the anti-Semitism endemic to their native land; among colonial officials, he’s English to the teeth. In all this, the narrative feels pitch-perfect.

However, Ivor’s bumbling and refusal to speak up for himself wear thin after a while. The Yiddish word nebbish fits him perfectly; he’s practically spineless, helpless in the face of demands of just about any kind. I got tired of how he hides his feelings whenever anyone asks, then apologizes for having failed to provide what was wanted. As a matter of storytelling, though, the trouble he gets into drives the novel.

I wish the narrative tone didn’t resort to archness as often as it does; too much of that feels like a pose. And though I like the writing, Wilson sometimes favors obscure words when a plain one will do, including at least three I couldn’t find in my dictionary.

Still, The Red Balcony gives a marvelously evocative picture of Palestine during the British Mandate:

Almost all Ivor’s impressions of Tel Aviv had been of an unregulated place, free from its moorings. It wasn’t only the flowing eclecticism of its architecture—the houses frequently had no numbers, women smoked in public and wore bathing suits on the bus. In England he had been closed-in by taboo, a suffocating mix of British reserve and Anglo-Jewish restraint. Here he was free, the muddle of his identity of a piece with the town itself.

Wilson also has the colonials down pat. They wear the wrong clothes and eat the wrong food for the climate, symbolic of their inability to understand that they don’t belong there—yet smug in their superiority.

I’ve read several novels about Palestine during or before the war for independence, but this one’s evocative in its own way and, unusually, focuses on religious identity—of a man who’s not religious. That’s original.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, where this commentary appeared in shorter, different form.