Review: Dirt

Sarah Sultoon- Dirt (Blog Tour)

Published by Orenda Books, paperback £9.99, also available in ebook. You can buy the book directly from the publisher at: I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: 1996, Northern Israel. Lola leaves an unhappy home life in England for the fabled utopian life of a kibbutz, but this heavily guarded farming community on the Arab-Israeli border isn’t the idyll it seems, and tensions are festering. Hundreds of miles away, in the Jerusalem offices of the International Tribune newspaper, all eyes are on Israel’s response to a spate of rocket attacks from Lebanon, until cub reporter Jonny Murphy gets a tip from a mysterious source that sends him straight into the danger zone. When the body of an Arab worker is discovered in the dirt of the kibbutz chicken house, it triggers a series of events that puts Lola and the whole community in jeopardy, and Jonny begins to uncover a series of secrets that put everything at risk, as he starts to realise just how far some people will go to belong…

Sarah Sultoon’s previous two novels, The Source and The Shot, appealed to me for both the freshness of their plotting and the refreshing sight of journalists and journalism being depicted with accuracy. Nuanced and raising questions of ethics, and also exploring the fallout stories can have on those who report them, both titles also packed a real punch in terms of subject matter. 

With third novel Dirt, Sultoon leaves England behind and takes us to a part of the world where everything is simultaneously rigidly black and white and dwelling in myriad grey areas: Israel, specifically a kibbutz on the border with Palestine (with a brief detour to Jerusalem).

Within a few pages the kibbutz volunteers are sketched out, and a hint of what is to come dropped: “There’s a level of enigma.” Some go to find themselves, some go to lose themselves. It’s like the Foreign Legion, but with farming rather than fighting. And a hint of the complexities of their lives follows: “When you want to belong to something, there’s no better way to do than picking a side.”

In the Beit Liora kibbutz, Lola is taking shelter during the latest rocket attack. In Jerusalem, Jonny takes a call about a body found in the kibbutz, just as the newsroom bursts into action to cover the rocket attack. Our two protagonists introduced and contrasted neatly. 

Politics permeates everything on the kibbutz, despite its communal ideals: who can go where and when, who gets what job, even who sits with who at meal times. In the newsroom, it’s how the data on the attacks is recorded: who and where and what response from the other side. Some are always more equal than others… But Sultoon’s past as a journalist sees her scrupulous in showing varied points of view through conversations between characters.

The dead man is Farid, who was in charge of the chicken houses. But what motive could there be for killing him? Well, of course there was more to him than Lola could ever imagine. Secrets are a staple of crime fiction; here they are everywhere, from the minor to the massive. And in some cases, they are compounded by emotion: Jonny is living the consequences of his mother falling in love with the wrong person and being shunned by her family – his grandmother (who has secrets of her own), won’t even speak her daughter’s name. Lola is starting to realise the consequences of getting involved with the wrong person.

For someone who has had awful experiences in the past, Lola still makes what I will charitably call unwary choices. We’ve all been there to some degree, had friends there too. On the one hand I could shake her for her decisions – on the other, I see exactly how she gets where she finds herself (and she only compounds that in the wake of Farid’s murder). She has struggled so much and remains uncertain of how to hold her boundaries; she desperately needs someone she can trust to help her deal with her experiences, and thankfully there’s a hint at the end that she may have found that person.

Jonny, having persuaded his news editor to let him travel to Beit Liora to report on the murder, finds himself less intrepid reporter and more scared rookie under pressure. It means he’s asking at least some of the right questions, but who is he answering to? The waters get deeper and more muddied; identities, links and motives are hidden. 

All of a sudden, all the volunteers are in danger, through no fault of their own, as the political and personal collide. In the midst of this, Jonny finds himself overwhelmed by family secrets – though not the ones he was hoping to uncover.

Sultoon’s prose is well-paced, spooling out the plot smoothly, with an unfussy style that still has space for some of Lola’s musings on the landscape, the languages literal and metaphorical around her, and her interactions with the permanent workers versus the volunteers. She is our guide in what will be an unfamiliar world to most readers, and while she’s not always likeable she’s hugely relatable, flaws and all. 

The border setting, which contrasts the toil of farming with forbidding fences and guards, as well as the cliffs on part of the kibbutz’s land, are liminal spaces; there’s a feeling anything could happen here, and in the late scenes there’s definitely a sense of transition for many characters as well as a literal transition of the site thanks to a couple of determined figures.

But while the politics and the daily dangers front-loaded into the plot fascinate and the unusual setting holds the attention perfectly, it’s the personal that quickly becomes the focus of the novel. This is what really matters – it’s the family ties, lost and found and lost again, then irrevocably altered, that are at the heart of Dirt. A border always asks, literally or subliminally, whose side are you on? The answer is Sultoon’s, without a doubt. 

Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington, DC to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Of Jewish and Indian descent, she has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if… Her debut thriller The Source is currently in production with Lime Pictures. It was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger, won the Crime Fiction Lover Debut Thriller Award, was a Capital Crime Book Club pick and a number-one bestseller on Kindle.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @SultoonSarah

Don’t forget to check out all the rest of the reviews on the blog tour!

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