The Red Balcony: A Novel

  • By Jonathan Wilson
  • Schocken
  • 272 pp.

A young Jewish barrister faces turmoil public and private in British Palestine.

The Red Balcony: A Novel

In June 1933, Haim Arlosoroff returned from Germany to British Mandatory Palestine having struck a devil’s bargain with the Nazis. The agreement provided exit visas for 60,000 German Jews. They could take their money out of Germany on one condition: that it be used to purchase German goods for export to Palestine.

This historical agreement was met with outrage on all sides. While Palestinian Arabs opposed the influx of Jewish refugees, Revisionist Zionists considered it an unforgiveable compromise. A few evenings later, Arlosoroff was murdered in Tel Aviv while walking on the beach with his wife. The suspects were two Russian Jews, Abraham Stavsky and Ze’evi Rosenblatt.

Jonathan Wilson’s The Red Balcony opens with this momentous real-life historical event and with the arrival in Palestine of a young Jewish barrister fresh out of Oxford. Ivor Castle has joined the Stavsky-Rosenblatt defense team, headed by Phineas Baron. Ivor’s first assignment is to question a potential witness. She’s a beautiful artist named Tsiona who was seen prior to the murder in a Jerusalem café at the same time as the accused men. When Ivor meets her, he’s instantly compromised: He falls helplessly in love.

On the face of it, The Red Balcony is a high-stakes thriller and a steamy romance with a lot of local color and intrigue. But Wilson has deftly folded the historical facts into his fast-paced narrative. Eventually, it becomes a weightier, more substantial exploration of important ethical questions and the nature of compromise.

You race through a page-turner with excitement; you’re not supposed to care if a few details don’t fit. But unfortunately, some of the ones here brought me up short. For example, the casual way Ivor falls into bed with Tsiona doesn’t seem like 1930s behavior. He’s had very limited sexual experience thus far, yet he’s up to the challenge of this complex, rather contrived bohemian who has both definite political leanings and a live-in lover. Ivor is afraid of annoying or angering her, but he’s almost impervious to the political tensions around him.

In real life, Arlosoroff’s murder created enormous upheaval in Palestine. The atmosphere must have been electric. His funeral was attended by upward of 70,000 mourners. We don’t see enough of this from Ivor’s point of view. There’s a curfew, and shopkeepers must close early because of the tensions. At one point, Ivor finds himself in the middle of a riot, and his companion is injured. But all we hear of the funeral is that “Baron had described to him with some excitement, the river of people that had meandered behind the pallbearers.”

A few period details are sort of plopped into the narrative. For instance, “the plummy but nonetheless steadfast and reassuring tone of the good old BBC Empire Service on the radio.” Such specifics somehow don’t permeate the story’s mental atmosphere.

Later, a young woman from Baltimore who is in Jerusalem with her parents invites Ivor to sleep on the sofa in her room. She also casually orders a round of drinks in the bar. I get that they’re overseas, but Prohibition didn’t end in the United States until December 1933. This and many other social exchanges seem implausible for the times.

We do read a lot about the heat and the way people dress. Hasidim are “draped in satin their heads crowned with round sable caps”; Tsiona is “in a long skirt and what looked like a man’s checkered shirt with an embroidered jacket over it”; a banker friend from Oxford dresses in “a loose white shirt and white trousers held up with a black belt.”

Halfway through the novel, the tone shifts. The writing becomes more sophisticated and the observations more nuanced. There are fascinating conversations about Jewish immigration from Germany and antisemitism across America and the U.K. We learn how, with the rise of Hitler, some Jewish Londoners put “No German Goods Sold Here” signs in on their storefronts, while other “upstanding members of the [Jewish] community argued that Herr Hitler had no idea quite what the Nazi thugs in his party were up to, and even if he did, the better course was diplomacy, not the antagonism of a boycott.” Later, the newspaper headline “Judea Declares War on Germany” is thought to be “not a call to arms, of course, but a scold, those aggressive Jews at it again.”

But Ivor isn’t attuned to these matters in the beginning. Only later are complex political issues juxtaposed with his personal questions and compromises. Does love make us behave better? Are absolute principles mistaken ones? Are desperate measures good? Or is the middle ground — compromise in all things personal and political — the only sensible path forward?

We learn that Ivor doesn’t feel at home in Palestine, nor does he identify with the Jews there, although he has been the victim of antisemitic remarks himself. Things become a lot more complicated than they seem, and there is always another wrinkle.

It’s as if the middle pages of The Red Balcony were written by a different, more sober Jonathan Wilson. You can’t judge a book by its cover or by its concessions to popular culture — the latter just another compromise in a book about compromises. The dust jacket calls this work “a gripping novel of sex, love and justice.” It’s actually a much more serious and considered book in disguise.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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