The real cost of witnessing war for readers back home

The murder of a friend kills a reporter's objectivity in the Middle East

When foreign correspondents pass through our Boston newsroom, they radiate a kind of Old World glamour. For us Walter Mittys who confront nothing more dangerous than a jammed photocopier, the experiences of intrepid reporters working in the world's hot spots are the stuff of daydreams. But I also want to yell out, "Why on earth would you do this?"

One complex response to that cry of mingled respect and bewilderment comes in a new novel from Masha Hamilton called "The Distance Between Us." Hamilton worked as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She covered the collapse of the Soviet Union. She's traveled through Afghanistan. But it was her five-year assignment in the Middle East that informs this exciting novel.

Caddie, a correspondent covering the intifada for a New York paper, is the story's veiled version of the author. We first meet her on the way to interview an Arab crime lord in Lebanon. She's traveling with other journalists, including her lover, a photographer named Marcus.

During four years on this hazardous beat, Caddie has developed two cardinal rules: 1) Don't get emotionally involved with the story and 2) Don't be overconfident. But in a moment's miscalculation, her plans go horribly awry. Their jeep is sprayed with bullets. Caddie gets hit in the arm, but she remains conscious long enough to realize that Marcus is dead. When she comes out of shock a week later, her cardinal rules are shredded.

The bulk of this sometimes poetic, sometimes gripping story concerns Caddie's efforts to get back to work while seething with hatred for whoever murdered Marcus. Knowing she can't report on a conflict that's struck her so directly, her editor wants her back in New York, but she stalls for weeks, claiming that she needs a vacation. Actually, she's ruminating over revenge fantasies. "How much would it cost to have one killed?" she wonders. "It's a crazy idea," she knows, "a nighttime thought, dark and fleeting," but she can't shake it.

First, though, she must penetrate her own cloudy memories of the attack to identify the gunman. And that effort takes her further back into memories of her life with Marcus, who, she finally realizes, had long been sending her intimations of despair.

The book's structure taxes the emotional power of this relationship somewhat. Marcus dies so early that we're forced to infer a lot from snippets of his journal and the negative space he leaves behind in Caddie's heart.

The poignancy of their relationship is also obscured by a Russian academic who floats out of the dust to encourage Caddie's revenge. He's handsome, steamy, and tragic. On at least two occasions, his shoulders appear broader than Caddie remembered, which suggests that he's growing quickly or that she has a bad memory for the men she sleeps with. In any case, he moves through an erotic haze, which, along with some spicy sex scenes, cheapens the novel a little and spoils the more profound connection between these two.

Far better are the bracing chapters in which Caddie ventures into the settlements on either side of this conflict. One night, she even manages to ride with a group of vigilantes out to settle old scores. It's treacherous territory for a reporter (and a novelist), but Hamilton handles these encounters with wounded, angry people deftly, and we're left thinking about the human tragedy rather than the political scorecard. The Palestinians and Israelis she meets endure and inflict so much agony that the loss of her own friend is gradually subsumed into contemplation about the futility of revenge.

"The Distance Between Us" also dramatizes difficult issues about what draws reporters - and readers - to stories of violence. What does it cost to become the kind of person who "can step over bloody ground for a quote"? It's a continuation of the questions raised so disturbingly by Anthony Loyd in "My War Gone By, I Miss It So" about the narcotic thrill of war reporting. To what extent are we voyeurs?

Hamilton knows noble answers to these questions - the need for witnesses to break the world's complacency and lead to resolution - but she also knows how pat those answers can become. She's determined to plumb the conflicted motives of people who rush to see danger in the world or in their newspaper. The result is a powerful portrayal of religious warfare and an unsettling challenge to anyone watching.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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