Dirt by Sarah Sultoon

Today I am sharing my thoughts on Dirt, the brand new novel by Sarah Sultoon. My thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the tour invite and to publisher Orenda books for the advance copy for review. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date:

About the Book

This is no utopia…

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 begins to realise just how far some people will go to belong…

My Thoughts

Sarah Sultoon is never one to shy away from a difficult subject. With her experience in journalism, in particular, in conflict zones, she brings an air of authenticity to her work that is difficult to replicate, and an honesty to the portrayal of the settings and characters who inhabit her novels. This is once again the case with Dirt, a book which takes readers to a kibbutz on the borders of Israel and Lebanon who constantly find themselves in the firing line of rockets from both sides of this deep political divide. With intriguing mystery and a cast of complicated but compelling characters, the author takes us on an unexpected and dangerous journey.

There are two principal characters who help us navigate this particularly mysterious novel. The first is Lola, a young woman with a very difficult past who has left home in England to join the kibbutz and live a far less complicated, if somewhat more dangerous, life. She is one of many who have given up the trappings of the western world for a life where the inhabitants are entirely dependant on the fruits of their own labours, as well as the prayer that they don’t become victim to a badly aimed rocket or two. The second character who dominates out attention is Jonny Murphy. he has his own reasons for being in Israel. A junior reporter, he rarely has the opportunity to break a big story but after a source leads him to a discovery that could blow the whole conflict apart, he pushes hard to b given an opportunity to visit the kibbutz under the guise of a story on how it is to live in the path of war.

I must say that I found it easier to be in the company of Jonny than I did Lola. It is clear that Lola is a damaged young woman, and as more of her past is revealed I started to feel some sympathy for her, but she comes across as the perpetual victim, completely unsure of what it is she is looking for and, as a result, prone to pleasing others. I was frustrated by her as a personality, but angered by the way she is treated by the men too. The objectification of a beautiful young woman is nothing new, sadly all to prevalent in society now, never mind in the years when this book was set, but in this case it leads to tragedy in a place that is already beset with danger. Add in Lola’s complicated feelings towards a discovery that ultimately blows apart the sanctuary of the kibbutz and it makes for a very difficult and sometimes uncomfortable part of the story.

Jonny was a character I actually liked from the start. I liked his determination, his insistence to be allowed to head out to the kibbutz, and ultimately his bravery in the face of clear adversity. He is plunged into a situation he has no experience of, familial lies driving him to keep moving forward with his investigation when most people would turn tail and run. I respected that, and I liked his personality. He felt like someone who was driven by a need for truth and understanding. Again, there is far more to learn about Jonny than you might expect, elements of his past that take even him by surprise, but the scenes in which we were with him feeling his fear and the urgency of his quest, were some of the strongest scenes for me.

This is a story of conflict, both internal as well as political. Sarah Sultoon has managed to capture that sense of fear and tension that I can imagine was part of the day to day experience of anyone living on the border between Lebanon and Isreal, and of creating that sense of fractures between the residents of the kibbutz. It is not just the murder which occurs at the start of the novel that creates the intrigue, very cleverly framed by the author to open and close the book in a very inventive way – certainly a perspective I was not expecting – although I was certainly curious as to who was murdered and why. That in itself if important to the residents, and to Lola. But they why leads into a much wider story than is understood by the people of the Kibbutz, one with potentially devastating and far reaching consequences.

I will be honest, there is one revelation that happens near to the end of the book that I am not sure was necessary. There was sufficient intrigue and tension without it and it felt a little jarring, pushing me out of the story a little when I was finally fully invested I the fates of all of the characters, not just Jonny. that aside, there is no questioning the quality of the authors writing, her ability to put you right in the heart of the novel and capture the essence of the setting so clearly that you can almost feel the oppressive heat emanating from the page as you read. There is an increase in tension towards the end, where the sense of jeopardy escalates, before bringing us to the quieter but no less impactful ending, a full circle from start to finish. Infused with authenticity borne of journalistic experience and knowledge, fans of the author will be totally absorbed by this book.

About the Author

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 to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. 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. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. 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 …

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