Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad review – Hamlet in Palestine

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Isabella Hammad’s 2019 debut novel, The Parisian, was roundly praised for its scale and humanity and won the Betty Trask prize. On the face of it, her second novel contrasts strongly with her first. The Parisian is a historical epic with a questing, romantic male protagonist; Enter Ghost is set in the modern day, and focuses on Sonia Nasir, a 35-year-old actor, who is arguably in stasis. Yet Hammad’s second novel is unmistakably the first book’s direct descendant: a story of Palestine, driven by questions of identity and belonging.

It begins with Sonia’s arrival at an airport. She is questioned and strip-searched, and finally allowed through immigration to see the sign: Welcome to Israel. She is visiting her sister, Haneen, in Haifa, but immediately takes a taxi to Akka, determined to “see something beautiful first”. Standing on the clifftop, watching the bathers below, she is as disconnected from the bright-blue sea as the trauma of being strip-searched, and imagines herself falling to the rocks below, “smashed in an instant and bloody on the rock”. She speaks English to the Palestinian taxi driver – “I resisted the idea of being bonded to this person” – and it’s with this refusal of her presence that Sonia, ghostlike, arrives in the land of her ancestors.

Both sisters were born in London to a Palestinian father and Dutch mother. Their family spent every summer in Haifa in their grandparents’ house, but Sonia has not been back since the early 2000s, or, as Haneen says with veiled criticism, “the second intifada”. Sonia feels exiled from her childhood and the country itself, unsure of the legitimacy of her belonging, and resentful of what she has not been told by her family. She is hoping to escape the misery of a recent disastrous love affair, but has the self-awareness to realise that “Escape was never really an escape, that was the problem. You only stumbled from one thing into another.”

Sonia researches the family’s past, while at the same time defending herself against feeling. Determinedly a tourist, she drifts through the days carrying a beach towel wherever she goes. Then Haneen introduces her to Mariam, a theatre director. On the way home they stop on a dark road by a house Sonia does not recognise. It is her grandparents’ house, scene of her childhood summers, now sold. “I looked up at the windows again and then, as if standing in a gallery of my mind, gazing down at the stage, waited for emotion to begin. It was like entering a church and expecting awe and holy feelings, except that now I was waiting for grief. In its absence another feeling crept upon me, a kind of exhausted despair.”

Moments of dissociation are common with Sonia, and Hammad herself often stands apart as the writing takes the form of a playscript. There is a certain opacity to Enter Ghost; geopolitical and linguistic clarifications are scant or obscured, adding to the sense of being locked out of the country, not always for the good of the storytelling. On a cassette tape of her grandparents from 1994, Sonia hears her grandmother’s disembodied voice say: “Even if I cannot live in it, my soul will reawaken if there is a Palestinian state.” It is a profoundly sad moment; one ghost listening to another.

It is neither memory nor family that reanimates Sonia and bonds her to Palestine, but work. Mariam is staging a production of Hamlet with a local pop star, Wael, playing the title role to draw the funding, but she needs a Gertrude and asks Sonia to help out. Reading in becomes rehearsing, then full-on commitment, and at one point Sonia is playing both Gertrude and Ophelia – which, thankfully for all involved, is avoided. The other actors are each from different backgrounds and places in the West Bank, and in early rehearsals they discuss various readings of the play’s significance. Is it simply a revenge drama, or is it political allegory? If so, is Shakespeare’s Denmark Israel or Palestine? Or perhaps it is Gertrude who is Palestine, her loyalties divided? Sonia is seduced by the process, and falls into an uneasy love affair, but the real object of her admiration, and the most vital character in the book, is Mariam.

Mariam lives in “a beautiful grubby house that smelled faintly of incense and disordered unalphabetised shelves of books in Arabic and English … I looked across the homely mess of the sitting area, already storing up the pain of leaving it.” She is forthright and driven, a mother as well as a director, embodying everything Sonia lacks: a purpose, a home, curiosity. “My mind relented to her question and I thought of that rare, marrow-deep sensation in the rehearsal room.” For it is not Mariam who interests Sonia most, but herself. Haneen accuses her of self-involvement and it is ironic and touching that this is a self-criticism she grapples with constantly.

As rehearsals progress they begin to attract unwelcome scrutiny from the authorities. At one point Sonia reflects that “nothing is more flattering to an artist than the illusion that he is a secret revolutionary”, but as the first night draws closer, politics moves front and centre and tensions rise. Hamlet in the West Bank is a more vital piece of theatre than it could ever be in complacent London. The production gives Sonia life, and provides her with a connection to the country she has longed for, but with that vitality comes risk as well as joy, and potentially terrible consequences.

Amy & Lan by Sadie Jones is published by Chatto & Windus.

• Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.