‘Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” the new novel by Writers’ Workshop alum Nathan Englander, is a novel of spycraft and romance. It’s no James Bond thriller, however.
Instead, it is a heartbreaking, if wryly amusing, story of men and women caught up in a longstanding struggle in which they try — often ineptly — to play a part. Issues of conscience, love and loyalty are at the forefront of the story.
The conflict is between Israel and Palestine. Portions of the story take place in 2002 in Berlin and Paris, and Englander deftly keeps the reader guessing about things without seeming coy or manipulative.
The book begins, however, in 2014, and the story frequently returns there to reveal some of the consequences of the characters’ actions in 2002.
Looming over the story is the General, a fearsome warrior who long has been in a coma. Englander takes us inside his mind as he returns again and again to a key moment in his life. These stops in Limbo are beautifully rendered and emphasize the outsized influence some people can have on the lives of many others. But even here, Englander highlights how little we can, in fact, control even when armed with resolve and authority.
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” carefully balances tragedy and hope. The intractability of conflict is a primary theme, but so is the notion of human connectedness — the types of connections that can change loyalties, shift priorities, and maybe ennoble our efforts even when they fail.
l What: Nathan Englander reads from “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” as part of the Iowa City Book Festival
l When: 1 p.m. Saturday
l Where: Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City
l Cost: Free