Book review - Shake Off By Mischa Hiller

Originally published in the Independent on 23 February 2011

Mischa Hiller's assured debut, Sabra Zoo, concerned the 1982 massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese Muslim civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. These horrific acts provide the backdrop to his follow-up novel, Shake Off, and are the catalyst for his young protagonist Michel's induction as an undercover PLO operative.

The novel opens in 1989, a few months before the Berlin Wall comes down. Michel, trained by the KGB, is posing as a student and living in London. Although loyal to the cause, he suffers from post-traumatic stress after witnessing the brutal murder of his family and has an addiction to codeine.

Michel's primary contact and mentor, the enigmatic Abu-Leila, has charged him with finding a UK venue for secret Palestinian-Israeli talks. But when Abu-Leila is assassinated in Berlin, Michel is forced on the run, unwittingly in possession of a package that has been smuggled out of the Occupied Territories. Pursued by both the Israelis and Palestinians, Michel is forced to seek the help of Helen, a fellow student and neighbour, with whom he has become romantically involved.

Some readers may be initially put off by the detailed descriptions of the world of espionage – the coding and decoding of messages, the surreal conversations in public phone booths, the dead-letter drops, the modified luggage for smuggling packages and the art of picking locks. There are also some unconvincing plot-lines, such as Michel's reluctance to know the contents of the package. But in the second half of Shake Off, when Michel is trailed through the streets of London and Cambridge to a remote corner of Scotland, Hiller ratchets up the pace in the best thriller tradition.

Hiller certainly knows his stuff and the various intrigues of his agents and double-agents are entirely credible. The use of Canadian passports by Israeli agents recalls the Mossad's misuse of British passports in Dubai last year. Hiller is also admirably measured in his account of the passions, betrayalss and hypocrisies on both sides.

Shake Off is something of a slow burn, but Hiller tackles complex issues with sensitivity and his portrait of a traumatised survivor is also deeply affecting. As such, Shake Off is a satisfying read and a clever thriller. Hiller's second novel is more than enough proof that this British-Palestinian writer is an upcoming talent to watch.