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by John Fullerton
Macmillan, July 2004
368 pages
ISBN: 1405033894

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

If you're a devoted exponent of the first 50 pages of a book rule, the chances are you won't finish GIVE ME DEATH. That early chunk reads like a random collection of notes bound together and numbered.

The idea's a cracker, although not in itself particularly new -- girl meets boy on other side of a divide (I seem to remember Shakespeare knocking out something along those lines a year or two back. . .) It's given a new gloss here, though, by the fact it takes place in the tumultuous war zone of the middle East and that the two protagonists are Nick, a UN worker sent to trace the thousands who have gone missing during the civil war, and Reem, a Lebanese suicide bomber.

John Fullerton's a journalist by background and clearly knows his territory. But whilst some reporters are instinctive novelists with their crisp, clear prose, Fullerton seems to take this too far and lacks the ability to flesh out a story. In those vital first 50 pages, an avalanche of characters pass by, frequently introduced in half a sentence. I soon developed the fingers of an octopus to flick back to see whether I'd met someone before. And whilst I thought I was fairly well up on the Middle East situation, there were sections where I was all at sea and rapidly found that Fullerton's not the best judge of what his reader needs -- at times we are buried under ponderous recapping, whilst at others he fails to provide necessary back story.

I have to say, too, that I was bemused by when the book is set. I'd assumed it to be contemporary, but the only clues that it isn't are a reference to the pop group The Police's EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE being the current hit and the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy has just landed in Beirut -- presumably a reference to Terry Waite who was later taken hostage.

Fullerton's strength, though, is his ability to capture a war zone with the terrifying gun and mortar battles, the dust, dirt and poverty, and the fear of dicing death with snipers as a daily occurrence. But Nick is a badly under-drawn character and is really only there as a focus for Reem's confusion. GIVE ME DEATH is the ultimate plot-driven thriller, with the characters as little more than ciphers.

I wanted to like this book, and there is in fact something there for the reader to admire -- when Fullerton actually gets hero Nick out of his office or hotel or bar and into everyday life, that reality is breath-taking and, at times, genuinely frightening. But it's very much bare bones and still reads to me like a first draft in urgent need of some fleshing out -- or something knocked out with more than half an eye on a movie deal.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, July 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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