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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Attack

Yasmina Khadra

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To purchase The Attack

Title: The Attack
Author: Yasmina Khadra
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 257 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Attack - US
The Attack - UK
The Attack - Canada
L'attentat - Canada
The Attack - India
L'attentat - France
  • French title: L'attentat
  • Translated by John Cullen

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat simplistic, but gathers strength as it goes along

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 5/9/2005 Daniel Rondeau
Financial Times . 30/6/2006 Lionel Shriver
The Guardian . 1/7/2006 James Buchan
Le Monde . 16/9/2005 Jean-Luc Douin
New Statesman . 10/7/2006 Kamila Shamsie
The NY Times . 15/5/2005 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/5/2006 Lorraine Adams
The New Yorker . 22/5/2006 .
The Telegraph . 30/7/2006 James Francken
The Telegraph . 13/8/2006 Lindy Burleigh
TLS A 30/6/2006 Tash Aw
The Washington Post . 11/6/2006 Jonathan Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ce qu'il y a de bien avec Khadra, c'est qu'il laisse le mystère conduire son récit." - Daniel Rondeau, L'Express

  • "The premise is promising, but no premise alone can carry a novel, and its execution is frustrating. (...) What most impedes any real appreciation for the emotional path from housewife to human bomb is the prose, often purple and overwrought. To be fair, it is impossible for an English reader to know whether the tonal OTT hails from the author or the translator." - Lionel Shriver, Financial Times

  • "The ending of the book is very fine, though Moulessehoul, in an inexplicable piece of economy, has already used it as a flash-forward at the beginning." - James Buchan, The Guardian

  • "But the characters are not mere mouthpieces -- above all else, this is a novel about a man who feels himself betrayed. Amin Jaafari's very human drama is the heart of this thoughtful and affecting work." - Kamila Shamsie, New Statesman

  • "The Attack is sufficiently philosophical to have been much-admired in France (.....) The book is also gripping and dynamic in ways that rivet the reader even when the thinking is didactic and the prose takes a purplish turn." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "The missing dimensions in the language of Khadra's novels are as significant as the missing soldiers. They prevent his readers from fully grappling with the bloody complexity, outside polemic and political condemnation that permeate these characters' lives. Hard to name and stubbornly mysterious, these emotional shadings would allow us to explore the moral low ground, not just its ramparts -- to consider something even more horrifying than the "shredded limbs" or the torso "flayed from one end to the other" in the destruction Jaafari's wife ignites." - Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Khadra’s writing has a tendency toward cliché, but the book’s dark vision of the conflict is powerful." - The New Yorker

  • "In Khadra's new novel, the same story is re-told: this is another narrative of cruelty and intolerance, of lives blighted by fundamentalism. And the heavy reliance on the staples of genre fiction is easy to understand." - James Francken, The Telegraph

  • "The Attack is a cleverly conceived, psychological thriller, which is also an exploration of terrorism. (...) The Attack has been called a detective story without a detective, and it's also one with an unsolved mystery at its centre. The novel's ending, however, vividly illustrates the tragedy of individuals caught up in an endless and meaningless cycle of violence." - Lindy Burleigh, The Telegraph

  • "The structure of this raw and powerful novel is somewhat conventional, and it has the high-class thriller's preference for simplicity and action, but the writing has a rare courage. (...) This is a novel from a skilled storyteller working at the height of his powers." - Tash Aw, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is at its best when Khadra explores the twists and turns of Jaafari's tortured descent into his own soul and the tensions and tugs of his convoluted identity. (...) But The Attack has problems. First, its author does not seem too familiar with Israel, its landscape or the fabric of the country's daily life. The novel contains a number of highly unlikely or dubious scenarios" - Jonathan Wilson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Attack is a novel that explores that bizarre modern phenomenon of the suicide-bomber. Khadra gets things off to a good start by picking an unlikely figure as his bomber.
       The novel is narrated by Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab who is a naturalised Israeli citizen and works in a Tel Aviv hospital. From a Bedouin family of relatively humble circumstances, he overcame all the hurdles, finished first in his class, and has become a respected and successful surgeon. It came at some cost, but he was willing to accept that:

I renounced my tribe, agreed to leave my mother's side, made concession after concession in order to dedicate myself to my career alone; I didn't have time to take an interest in the traumatic events that undermined hopes for reconciliation between two chosen peoples who have elected to turn a land blessed by God into a field of horror and rage.
       Apolitical (at least by the standards of the area) and areligious, he has managed, for the most part, to remain above the fray. But it's Israel, and it's not that easy. One of the first events described in his account is the after-effects of a terrorist attack at a restaurant, with heavy casualties, leading to hours in the hospital and operating room. As it turns out, this particular attack hits closer to home than most: one of the victims is Amin's wife, Sihem. And it gets worse: as a police captain explains:
Your wife didn't go into that restaurant to have a snack, she went there to have a blast ...
       Indeed, all the indications are that Sihem was the suicide bomber responsible for the attack. Amin has a hard time believing it, but the evidence soon convinces even him. The question then becomes: why ?
       Amin is, of course, also a suspect, but it's clear he knew absolutely nothing about what his wife was planning. It's his own blindness, the fact that the person he shared his life with was capable of such deception and lived another life and was willing to end her own for a cause he was not even aware she cared so much about that truly staggers Amin. Staggers is the right term: that's pretty much what he does for the rest of the novel, as he goes looking for answers.
       It's not his place to look for answers, of course, and the police and the militants both warn him off.
       At least some of the police have as hard a time understanding what happened here. Though from a slightly different perspective, the captain has the same question as Amin:
I absolutely have to know how a beautiful, intelligent, modern woman, esteemed by the people around her, thoroughly assimilated, pampered by her husband, and worshipped by her friends -- the majority of whom are Jews -- how such a woman could get up one day and load herself with explosives and go to a public place and do something that calls into question all the trust the state of Israel has placed in the Arabs it has welcomed as citizens.
       It's a not an easy question, and it proves a big burden for the novel. Just because she doesn't fit the usual profile of a suicide bomber doesn't make it unbelievable, but unfortunately Khadra doesn't fill in enough of her background to make it entirely convincing -- and he waits far too long before any of it becomes convincing. Certainly, part of the story is that Amin is blind to his wife's activities and true feelings, but it's odd that he doesn't scour his memory more for clues as to what might have driven her to it.
       Hunting down the few clues that he has also doesn't get him anywhere for quite a while -- though he does manage to get himself beaten up by every possible side (a peculiar and unnecessary masochistic excess common to Khadra's fiction). Surprisingly, however, this is a novel that does gather strength as it goes along. Amin's eyes are truly opened, and those small revelations, of a world he's ignored so long, are effective, especially once he travels to Jenin:
     I'd had no idea that the state of decay was so advanced here, and all hope so effectively dashed. Of course, I'm aware of the animosities destroying brain cells on both sides, and I know all about the obstinacy of the warring parties, their refusal to reach an agreement, their devotion to their murderous hatred; but seeing the unbearable with my own eyes traumatizes me. When I was in Tel Aviv, I was on another planet. My blinders shielded me from taking in much of the tragedy devastating my country
       Unfortunately, Khadra isn't a great writer, and tries far too hard, here and elsewhere, to also sound literary, striving for an eloquence that actually undermines the text. Yes, this is a book which actually has dialogue such as:
     "The town's under siege," he warns me.
     "So am I."
       Still, the final truth, and all the consequences are fairly well handled, and the novel packs a decent punch by the end. There's not quite enough about Sihem to make her a fully convincing figure, but there are glimpses of the desperation and fanaticism that might lead men (and women) to take this awful, self-destructive step.
       Certainly readable, certainly thought-provoking, the major weakness of the book is that the writing in The Attack simply isn't strong enough to pull off everything Khadra aims for. Khadra tries real hard (and he certainly means well), but too often the effort shows.

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The Attack: Reviews: Other books by Yasmina Khadra under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature
  • See Index of books from and about Africa

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About the Author:

       'Yasmina Khadra' is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul. He was born in 1956, and fled his native Algeria in 2000.

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