Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pg. 69: "Season of Betrayal"

Margaret Lowrie Robertson's debut novel is Season of Betrayal, which is set in Lebanon and features snipers, mortar shelling, car bombs, suicide bombers, and international news correspondents.

Margaret should know about these things--she's a former international reporter for CNN and CBS, and she's married to Nic Robertson, a senior international correspondent based in CNN's London bureau.

I asked her to apply the "page 69 test" to her novel. Here is what she reported:
Season of Betrayal is set in Beirut 1983 and, as it turns out, the sixty-ninth page is something of a literary triptych: a trio of tales, each with a distinct trajectory of its own. The first section shows another crack in the façade of Lara and Mac McCauley’s marriage. They’ve recently arrived in Beirut, where he’s a correspondent for an American newsweekly. But this posting is already proving disastrous. At their housewarming party, as guests nibble hors d’oeuvres and discuss Middle East politics, Lara spies Mac slipping out to the balcony, where his Lebanese translator waits in the shadows. Page 69 picks up in the middle of their post-party fight.

I glared at him.

“Besides, she’s got a boyfriend.”

He lunged at me, trying to tickle me.

“I saw you, Mac,” I cried, brushing away his fingers. “You promised me, last year in Rome, you promised you wouldn’t.”

“What? Don’t be such a goose.”

He stuck his lower lip out in exaggerated pleading, picked up the boxer shorts and put them over his head, the elastic waistband framing his face like a picture frame, and, with arms extended, called, “Come on, Lu. Please. Don’t be mad.”

Angry as I was, he looked so comical, I couldn’t help laughing, first a little, then helplessly, as his fingers found their target and plucked my ribs like a guitar.

The backdrop is Lebanon’s ongoing brutal civil war in and the countdown to disaster for the US Marines peacekeeping force. Trying to help restore stability in a fractured land, the Marines often found themselves in positions Washington hadn’t anticipated. February 1983 brought a confrontation with Israeli troops, still occupying a slice of Lebanon, following their invasion a year earlier. Though allies, the Israelis made several preliminary probes of US lines, as if to test resolve. This second section refers to an incident recounted earlier in the chapter, when a Marine colonel blocked Israeli tanks at a US checkpoint.

I never met Col. Johnson, but Martin and Fahti and Doug did, and, for a while anyway, he was something of a folk hero in Lebanon. The American who stood up to the Israelis. Afterward, the Israelis tried to make light of the incident, accusing the Beirut press corps of exaggerating a routine event. The ranking Israeli officer at the scene claimed at one point that Johnson was drinking. The attempt to vilify him backfired. Here was splendid irony: apparently, the man was a teetotaler.

Lara, the narrator, is an outsider -- unlike her husband and the others, she’s not a journalist. Gripped by fear and self-doubt, she finds it difficult to rise to the challenges of life in a war zone. This third section refers to her attempts to create purpose in her life and build a routine out of the chaos. She talks about the editor who’s teaching her how to edit video news footage. But it’s less about her needing a job, than a place to be, in the psychological shelter of other people.

Despite the frantic pace, the TV Kansai edit room felt a safe spot in a sea of insanity. Nothing seemed to crack Gifford’s composure. His large, loud, Australian presence was reassuring, especially on days when the city foamed with violence. No matter what the distraction outside, he kept going, invulnerable in this self-contained world, working his TV magic, constructing video tales by marrying bits of tape and sound with Yoshi’s recorded narrative.

Journalists, war zones, good marriages going bad... all hinged together on this particular page. Does it pass the McLuhan test? It sure works for me.
Many thanks to Margaret for the input.

Among the advance reviews and praise for Season of Betrayal:
"...There are no heroes in this wrenching novel; no one behaves well and everyone’s motives are suspect. With years of experience in news broadcasting, including a year in Beirut as a stringer for CBS radio, Robertson writes with authenticity about a city and a people destroyed by civil war. The contrast she draws between the grand scale of the Lebanese civil war and the small scale of Lara’s battle to win back Mac is quite effective. An exceptional first novel, gripping and real.
Library Journal, starred review (October 2006)

"Ms. Robertson writes with a crisp, clear, tough voice reminiscent of Joan Didion's journalism. Her portrait of Beirut -- at once vivid and meticulous -- displays a reporter's gift for detail."
Wall Street Journal (October 21, 2006)

"Season Of Betrayal is a captivating journey into war-torn Beirut and the equally dangerous frontlines of human relationships. Margaret Lowrie Robertson brings her keen reporter's eye to this evocative and moving story of love, loss, and of course betrayal."
— Anderson Cooper
Curious about Margaret's five favorite Middle East novels? Click here.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue