Review: Enter Ghost, Isabella Hammad

Published in The Observer on March 28, 2023

Isabella Hammad impressed with her debut novel, The Parisian. The story of a Palestinian man navigating upheaval at home and abroad during the first half of the 20th century, its marriage of the personal and the political was notably assured for a twentysomething writer.

Now, four years later, she’s done it again – and what context could offer a more febrile union of the personal and the political than present-day Palestine? Enter Ghost takes you deep inside the protagonist’s experience while opening a wider window on to life for Palestinians and their exhausting day-to-day struggles.

Hammad explores this setting with intelligence and a fine-grained specificity that demands the reader keep up. Happily, the story warrants close attention. We follow Sonia, a 38-year-old actor escaping an ill-starred affair with a theatre director in London to visit her family’s homeland for the first time in years. She stays in Haifa with her sister, Haneen, whose friend, the frank and idealistic Mariam, asks Sonia to play Gertrude in an Arabic production of Hamlet she’s directing in the West Bank.

At first resistant, the sharp, spiky Sonia soon finds herself drawn in. But making art under occupation involves funding and checkpoint challenges, arrests and interrogations, a backdrop of mass protests and the ever-looming question of whether the Israelis will even allow performances to happen. But as Mariam says to Sonia: “If we let disaster stand in our way we will never do anything. Every day here is a disaster.”

Such pressures kindle tensions among the Palestinian cast, who range from residents of a refugee camp to a famous pop star. The subtle complexities of relationships between “48ers” – Palestinians who stayed within the newly drawn boundaries of Israel after 1948 – and those from the West Bank are fascinatingly unpacked. And Hammad is astute on how competition among these men can be stirred up by humiliations inflicted by Israeli soldiers.

As the title indicates, Sonia is also haunted by her own past. She re-interrogates her understanding of family members’ involvement in the Palestinian resistance, and her own memories of summers there as a teenager – including a particularly harrowing visit to a hunger striker, one of the book’s most powerful scenes. Examinations of her difficult relationship with Haneen (the “long frail story of our sisterhood… the crosshatching of intention and advantage and betrayal”) and of the breakdown of her marriage are woven throughout too.

The result is a dense read, but once Sonia fully commits to doing Hamlet the pace begins to pick up and the complex world-building pays off, producing a richly layered novel. Some rehearsal scenes are laid out like a play text, allowing Hammad to cover a lot of Hamlet-related ground lightly and swiftly. But mostly she takes her time, writing with an elegant, confident poise and accumulation of detail that is refreshingly unfashionable.

While Sonia ponders art’s limits in desperate situations (“I had a horrible, useless revelation, which was that in some way the meaning of our Hamlet depended on this suffering”), the novel nonetheless builds to her troupe’s performance, which gains a charge from the defiance it requires. On opening night, Israeli soldiers approach the stage then stop and watch, just as Hamlet plots to put on a play that will force the murderous Claudius to confront his guilt. Suddenly, Hamlet neatly aligns with the situation of the Palestinian players: the oppressed challenging their oppressors through the act of staging a performance. It’s a deeply satisfying climax to an intelligent novel.

Where next?