Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Osama by Lavie Tidhar
Published: P.S. Publishing 2011
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award
Awards Nominated: BSFA and Campbell Awards

The Book:

Lavie Tidhar was in Dar-es-Salaam during the American embassy bombings in 1998, and stayed in the same hotel as the Al Qaeda operatives in Nairobi. Since then he and his now-wife have narrowly avoided both the 2005 King’s Cross and 2004 Sinai attacks-experiences that led first to his memorable short story “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” and later to the creation of Osama.

In a world without global terrorism Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find a man: the obscure author of pulp fiction novels featuring one Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante...”

This is the first book I’ve read by Lavie Tidhar. I didn’t much know what to expect going into Osama, since I picked it out to read primarily due to the award attention it received the previous year.  Since it was very convenient to buy as an e-book from P.S. Publishing, I decided to give it a try. 

My Thoughts:

It seems to me that Osama would be best read in one sitting.  It took me a while to get into the flow of the writing, and my appreciation of the style and structure increased as I read.  I didn’t feel like there were any natural stopping points, so picking up the novel again always required a little re-orientation. On one occasion, for instance, I picked it back up in the middle of a particularly delirious section, and had to backtrack a chapter to regain my sense of where I was in the story.  Osama requires a relatively attentive and focused reader, and I think I could have provided that with a lot less effort if I had just read it all in a long evening.

Most of the novel was written in short, choppy phrases and sentences, which tended to be surface descriptions of Joe’s thoughts and observations.  Most of the interpretation of Joe’s experiences was left to the reader.  For example, here’s one interesting excerpt:

He thought about doors in film. … Films were constructed landscapes, a fakery made up of the torn pieces of differing locations.  A door opened on the outside of a building, in a movie, and it led—more often than not—not into the inside of the building, but somewhere else.  There were transitions in film, smoothed over, made seamless, but they were transitions nevertheless, a shortcut through both space and time.” ~p. 403 

The clarity of the writing fluctuated along with Joe’s mental state, which resulted in some trippy scenes.  It was sometimes difficult for me to feel engaged with the style, but it seemed to well represent Joe’s detached, confused state of mind.  Interspersed throughout Joe’s story were accounts of terrorist attacks, most of which seemed like they were supposed to be taken from the story’s Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante novels.  These didn’t really seem like pulp novels or like news reports, but something in between.

The basic story followed a standard detective formula, but the plot seemed more symbolic than anything else.  Joe’s world was filled with people known as ‘refugees’ or ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’, people who fade in and out of focus.  It was implied that they (or at least some of them) were victims of terrorist attacks.  They were like fragments of people, their solidity determined by their ability to cling to what pieces of themselves they chose to be defined by.  In a similar way, Joe defined himself by his role as a detective, and the surface plot was central to his ability to adhere to that chosen identity.  Though he went through the motions of a detective story—questioning people, following leads, dodging mysterious enemies—the atmosphere was not filled with the tension of a mystery story, but with a strong sense of disorientation and sadness.  The basis and rules of Joe’s world were left unclear, but there was enough information for some interesting speculation.

Beneath Joe’s search for the author, it seemed that a lot of the story was about the near impossibility of truly processing certain things, such as the concept of terrorism.  In Joe’s world, terrorism was basically thought of as trashy fiction, existing primarily for shock value.  They would have considered it unrealistic to think that someone might actually do such a thing.  The ‘refugees’ weren’t able to truly grasp what had happened to them, and even the accounts of victims highlighted the seeming unreality of their situation.  There was some effort to make sense of the motivation and intent behind these acts, but not to excuse them.  I wondered if the ever-present opium in the story might have been a nod toward the other side, alluding to the damage that can occur in a clash between cultures with differing power and priorities. A lot of Osama seemed open to interpretation, and I’m sure there are many other ways to consider the content of the novel.   I think that the novel contains plenty of interesting content for discussion, though I am only able to point out a few brief topics in this review.  
My Rating: 4/5

Osama was an unusual novel, and one that requires a fairly focused reader.  The style tended towards short phrases and sentences, and it typically reflected the changing clarity of mind of the main character, Joe.  The story followed a typical detective format, but with an atmosphere of confusion and loss.  I found the content surrounding Joe’s devotion to his role as a detective to be more interesting—the basis of his world, his mental state, and the difficulty of mentally processing horrible things.  This is not a simple novel, and there are many aspects of the book that would be interesting to discuss at more length with other readers.  I am curious to see how Osama compares to Tidhar’s other work.


  1. Somehow I missed this when you posted. I actually got this book free a few months back. I forget how, might have been noticed as a free ebook on SFSignal? Anyway, probably won't get around to it anytime soon, but I'm glad to know it will be worth it when I do.

    1. I'd be interested in hearing your take on it, if you end up reading and reviewing it (though it isn't a Hugo). It was a really weird one :).

    2. You have me intrigued. Who knows what will happen with reviews once I'm done with the Hugos though.