I'm really unsure about this book. I've moved between two and four stars so many times that I'd better just stick with three, but I can't.
This review contains spoilers that may ruin the book for you. After the tl;dr, which is safe to read, continue at your own risk. I won't be using the spoiler tag.
There's no satisfying conclusion, no detailed explanation, and some really overused techniques; it's really hard to grab hold of it and take it seriously. However, the book has a fascinating premise and tries to do home really interesting things with language. It even partially succeeds. The four stars are awarded partially on the strength of the attempt, but mostly on the questions of choice and identity that Tidhar raises, answering only with the least satisfying anti-western conclusion imaginable.
The longer version should begin with an excerpt:
This was the third or fourth bar he's tried, each one dingier than the other, in each subsequent one the music quieter, the lights dimmer, the drinking more intense. There were women there, from Asia and Africa and Europe, a cosmopolitan blend who all wore the same exaggerated makeup, the same too-short skirts, the same look in their eyes that was at once an evaluation and a wariness and an invitation, and deeper than that, a great restless tiredness resembling fear, and the men who came to the bars returned that look with one of their own, a corresponding mix of hunger and reticence and unvarnished need and a little bit of shame: they were a dance, Joe thought, an intricate wavering pattern criss-crossing and hatching like the web of train lines outside of St. Lazare, criss-crossing and hatching, but never quite meeting, and if they ever did it would be fatal.
The book is full of language like that. I can (and did) imagine the narration over a dark, smoky black and white film. I heard Bogart's voice. Later, when elements from Casablanca were recreated, I either rolled my eyes or laughed. I'm not sure which. Maybe both.
Here's the thing - the narration is so stereotypical that it's really hard to take seriously. So is Joe, the protagonist. He has no last name and no identity outside of "detective." He has no motives other than investigation. He likes bad scotch, smokes too much, and drinks too much coffee. I hated him and wondered how a book centered on this character could win any award the author didn't pay for.
I normally give the bad, then the good, but I can't do that here. I can't give the good without giving an overview of the plot, and I hate giving plot overviews. Oh, well.
The novel is set in a universe in which terrorism isn't real. Osama bin Laden is a character in a series of pulp books written by a guy named Mike Longshott. Joe, the bland protagonist, really likes those books. He's in in his office when a woman appears. He doesn't see her come in, she just does. She gives Joe a credit card and tells him to find a guy the author. Without discussing payment, he agrees.
He hops around the world looking first for Medusa Press, then the author. He's harassed by two different groups, one obviously law enforcement, the other some kind of criminal organization. People smoke opium like crazy in order to dream, which Joe can't do. The one time he experiences opium, he dreams - and finds himself in our world, the real world.
In the end, we discover that Joe is one of countless refugees from our more violent world, that he doesn't belong in the world in which he finds himself. These refugees exist in varying states of solidity, sometimes disappearing from existence entirely. When Joe sleeps, he ceases to be. Other characters have entered nonexistence permanently, presumably because they never developed a real identity.
The woman who hired him to find Longshott is a lover or a friend from our world, trying desperately to convince Joe to become who he once was. He has a moment of clarity but refuses to accept the name she gives him. The book ends with Joe at his desk, doing nothing, accepting his life as a literal stereotype.
So at the end, we see all of Tidhar's hamfisted and stereotypical choices actually mean something. The language he uses changes at different points in the book to match the level of awareness Joe seems to have of reality and of himself. It's not so hamfisted after all.
I felt unsatisfied at the end of the book, but I really feel that it was intentional. Despite its obvious flaws, I think this is a really smart story. It could have been executed better, but it was well worth the read.
For a westerner in love with the idea of individuality and agency, Joe's choice might make no sense. It screams "don't take the easy way out" to anyone paying attention. I would hope that I would choose to be myself no matter how difficult it made the world seem. If I'm honest, I can only shake my head as I count the times I allowed myself to be subsumed under something that wasn't real simply because it was the easier path.