Taken – a novel by Michael Totten. Book Review.

Taken’ is the first novel by Michael Totten. Totten, an American blogger and foreign correspondent, is the author of ‘the Road to Fatima Gate’ and two other works of reportage.  In the Middle East, he has reported from Lebanon, Iraq and Israel.


Totten has pioneered an approach to the work of the foreign correspondent’s trade appropriate to the digital age.  Travelling light, unencumbered by formal affiliation to bureau or newspaper, he has managed in his reportage to achieve an empathy for and insight into both Middle Easterners and westerners in the Middle East which has made him into one of the most interesting voices working on the region. 


This is his first foray into fiction.  It is a success.  The novel deals with the kidnapping of a writer called ‘Michael Totten’ from his home in the US Pacific North-west.  He is abducted at night by a band of four who turn out to be Islamists. At least one of the gang appears to be American-born, or raised.  The fictive Totten is then presented by his captors with a strange opportunity.  They intend to hold him until the USA releases a number of incarcerated terror suspects.  But in the meantime, he will be permitted to make entries to his blog, in order to raise publicity for the terrorists’ case. 

There follows some wry blogger’s humor in which the fictional Totten ponders his situation.   He is furious about his capture, but cannot fail to note that the blogger’s dream of vastly increased traffic is now before him. 


Totten tries various tricks without success and finally reaches a desperate and unexpected decision as a means to gain freedom. To find out what happens next and further in, it will be necessary to read the novel.  This is recommended.  


‘Taken’ works on a number of levels.  From one point of view, it is a thriller. The author drives the plot with a determined hand. He shows a talent for describing scenes of action and intensity which has already been apparent from his reporting on Iraq and Lebanon. 


But the book is also a novel of ideas, and a character study.  In terms of the former, Totten uses the framework of the novel to discuss the nature of journalism and war correspondence, as the kidnapped ‘Michael Totten’ ponders his fate from his incarceration. 


He notes the nature of the war correspondent as a ‘tourist on the dark side’, observing that he has always been happy with a ‘certain amount of darkness in my life’, as long as its not ‘my own personal darkness.’  This, slipped into a scene in a thriller, is as insightful and honest a phrase on the typical foreign correspondent as any to be found. 


Through the depiction of the kidnappers, the book also asks questions about the appeal of radical Islam for some western-raised Muslims, and the gap between the west and the Middle East. 


The characters of three of the captors are finely drawn.  In particular, that of Ahmed, the leader of the group, is closely observed.  It is a portrait more subtle, and in a qualified and measured way sympathetic, than would generally be found in books dealing with the grim subject matter here. 


This reviewer is generally skeptical regarding the postmodern tactic available to novelists of inserting themselves into their own novels.  However, here the device works well. This is because of Totten’s slightly tongue in cheek approach to it.


Thus at one point, the (fictive) Michael Totten casts doubt on his own fictional status. He declares that while a particular course of action might have worked all very well in a work of fiction, he had to remember that ‘I wasn’t a character in a novel,’ and so this could not be assumed to also apply to his situation.  Such acrobatics are slightly dizzying, but the (writer) Totten manages to pull it off. 


 I had two small quibbles with the novel.  Ahmed, the main protagonist among the kidnappers, describes himself as having ‘converted’ to Islam.  But it appears that his family were non-practicing Muslims indifferent to their faith.  The child of such people would not need to ‘convert’ to Islam.  I would have liked this issue to have been explained in more detail.


The other, smaller quibble was that at a certain point Totten hears his kidnappers arguing in an adjoining room and understands what was being said.  This reviewer’s language antennae twitched at that point.  I asked myself ‘why would they be conversing among themselves in English?’


But these are very minor points. On the most fundamental level, the question that needs to be asked about a work of fiction is; does the writer succeed in creating an imaginative world in which the reader is able to immerse himself for the duration of the story? Is the fictional world presented with sufficient depth and power to make this mysterious process possible?  Here, the answer is yes. 


About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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