“Palestinians are caricatured in the West as dangerous ‘militants’ & ‘extremists’, as if there’s something unhinged about resisting occupation. Collateral Damage provides an alternative narrative that shows the reality of their struggle through an empathetic character.”
Review by Clive Haswell, secretary of Cardiff and Vale Momentum/WLG
Documenting the dark side of the British state could be a dry discourse, but Collateral Damage – the second novel from former Corbyn adviser Steve Howell – has none of that.
In a thriller that keeps you guessing, he sympathetically explores the anxieties, relationships and back stories of a generation of 1980s activists as they come up against the realities of power.
The central character is Ayesha, whose boyfriend, Tom, mysteriously dies while attending a conference in Gaddafi’s Libya. Born in Beirut to a Palestinian mother, she’s previously experienced loss during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and the horrific refugee camp massacre they sponsored.
Desperate to seek the truth about Tom’s death, she gathers support from friends she’s made since coming to live in London, including Hannah, her closest friend and fellow postgraduate at LSE, and Jed, a junior immigration lawyer who naively agrees to help.
Jed and Ayesha go to Tripoli where they must navigate the hostility of Tom’s wealthy father, who resents what he sees as Ayesha malign influence; the bureaucracy of the Libyan police force; and what they begin to suspect is a Foreign Office cover-up.
Once back in London, Jed has an unexpected ally in the boss of his law firm, whose experience as an Irish immigrant to England a generation earlier has made him hard-nosed about the British establishment and its representatives.
At the same time, while juggling family responsibilities, Jed discovers a parallel history of his now ailing US father’s battle as a victim of McCarthyism, which turned him into an exile, too, and resulted in Jed being brought up in the UK.
As the story zigzags to a dramatic climax, the British state is exposed for trying to cynically manipulate events and ride rough-shod over rights previously taken for granted by our determined gang of activists.
In writing the book, its author has drawn on his own experiences as a peace activist in the 1980s and the son of an American exile from McCarthyism.
When Steve went to Tripoli in 1987 for the real-life conference that his character Tom attends, a Canadian journalist, 31-year-old Christoph Lehmann-Halens, was found dead having apparently fallen from the roof of the hotel where they were staying. The Libyans suggested it was suicide, but Lehmann-Halens didn’t leave a note and his family has never accepted that he took his own life.
While admitting that the death of Lehmann-Halens was his starting point, Steve insists that Collateral Damage is not an attempt to offer an explanation for it.
He says: “My victim, Tom, is from London not Ottawa and his partner, Ayesha, ultimately succeeds in her pursuit of the truth. But, although the characters and the story are entirely fictional, my experience of going to Tripoli and being so close to the scene of someone’s death has obviously helped to shape the book.”
Similarly, the back story of Jed’s father has added authenticity because it is based on what happened to Steve’s father, who decided to leave the United States in 1950 rather than risk blacklisting or, as released FBI files now reveal, prosecution and possible imprisonment under the notorious Smith Act for being a member of the Communist Party.
Collateral Damage tackles these big themes of anti-imperialism and the role of the state within an accessible and entertaining tale. It gives an insight into the issues and experiences of activists in the 1980s that will resonate today as a new generation challenges those responsible for the 21st Century’s regime-change wars and the refugee crises they have created.
Steve conceived and started writing Collateral Damage before going to work for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. In choosing to make Ayesha his central character, he could not have known that her back story would be so timely in providing a reminder of some of the darkest moments in the history of Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinian people.
Palestinians are caricatured in the West as dangerous ‘militants’ and ‘extremists’, as if there’s something unhinged about resisting occupation. Collateral Damage provides an alternative narrative that shows the reality of their struggle through an empathetic character. It’s a much-needed antidote and well worth reading.
- Clive Haswell is secretary of Cardiff and Vale Momentum/Welsh Labour Grassroots.
- Collateral Damage can be ordered in paperback at £10 including UK delivery via https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/ or at £8.99 through Waterstones and independent bookshops. A Kindle version at £3.99 is available on Amazon.