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Muriel Spark: The Mandelbaum Gate

This is not a very typical Spark novel, as she tries something different from her normal method of writing novels and, frankly, interesting though it is, it is not a very successful. The story is mainly about Barbara Vaughan, an Englishwoman who is half-Jewish but who has converted to Catholicism and is a fully committed catholic, like Spark herself. She is on holiday in Israel and wants to go on a pilgrimage to see the holy sites in Jordan, as well as see her fiancé who is working on an archaeological dig at Qumran. (This is before the 1967 War so many of the sites were, at that time, still in Jordan.) She is warned that, because she is half-Jewish, she faces considerable risk but goes anyway. Much of the story is how Freddy Hamilton, a British diplomat, who fancies himself as a poet, and an Arab family, the Ramdez, separated by the Israeli occupation, help her make her pilgrimage and get her out of Jordan, through the Mandelbaum Gate to Israel.

Spark clearly tells a good story and there are a lot of stories within the story. Barbara, herself, is having difficulty marrying her fiancé because he has been married and the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce. She is also being pursued by her employer, friend and, possibly, lover, Miss Rickford, aka Ricky. Freddy has an aging mother back in Harrogate and problems with the mother and her companion (which results in the companion killing the mother.) The Ramdez family has a variety of issues. Joe the father started up the family business, which involves a travel agency, insurance and smuggling. Much of the travel agency is run by his daughter, Suzi, while his son, Abdul, is on the Israeli side, doing his bit. They are, of course, running a spying business, which Freddy, purely by chance, unmasks.

Spark flips uneasily from telling a serious story to telling a farce. All too often, the seriousness of Barbara’s plight switches casually from being a bit of joke (even as bullets are flying) to being a serious matter. She also has a habit of doing the same with the chronology, suddenly changing from one time period to another without explanation, so that the reader can lose track of where the story is and what has happened. This is, of course, acceptable in a post-modern novel but somehow jibes in a Spark novel. Conclusion? An interesting attempt but ultimately a failure.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Macmillan