Mischa Hiller's debut novel, winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book for Europe and South Asia, is set in 1982 during the Lebanese Civil War. The main protagonist of the story is eighteen-year-old Ivan, half Danish and half Palestinian who, although he could have left Beirut when his parents were evacuated, decides to stay and work undercover for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). When Ivan is not working as a courier for the PLO, he spends most of his day working as an interpreter for international medical volunteers in the Sabra refugee camp, where he meets a varied cast of characters including Youssef, a camp orphan disabled by a cluster bomb and Youssef's physiotherapist, the attractive Norwegian, Eli. At night Ivan spends his time drinking, smoking, socialising with friends and colleagues, whilst desperately trying to start a sexual relationship with the older and more experienced Eli. Ivan starts to enjoy his new-found independence but, when a cadre of the PLO needs to use his flat as a safe house, Ivan's life becomes more dangerous as he lives on a knife-edge, juggling his day to day life at the refugee camp with his courier work, whilst continually looking over his shoulder for would-be assassins.
In many ways this novel is a coming of age story that works on more than one level; it is quite amusing to see that whilst Ivan is trying to live up to his father's reputation and expectations and become a man, he is at the same time getting childish pleasure out of making an impressive candle wax build up on his Chianti bottle. However, as we progress through the novel we see tensions slowly build and, as Ivan is chased through the streets of Beirut by a former colleague turned informer and ends up hiding in fear of his life covered in filth in a chicken run, he starts to realize that the glamour of his secret life "isn't John Le Carre" and that "Smiley's people hadn't wandered around ...without enough money to buy a cup of coffee".
In the final part of the story, when the president-elect is assassinated and a faction of the Israeli armed forces enters Beirut, the resultant chaos and carnage force Ivan to make important decisions about his country, his beliefs, his life and his future. There are some very graphic scenes in this section of the novel where men, women and children are violated, butchered and killed and these descriptions are difficult to read; however this tragic moment in history, like many others, needs to be retold, and Mischa Hiller's novel does a very good job at doing just that.