Book Review: EMPTY HEARTS, sourcing suicide bombers

E7720DEE-B3BF-4F0B-BBA9-60224924D222Empty Hearts
Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen

In 2025, the United States and Russia have formed an alliance making most terrorist groups impotent. France, along with Britain, has left the European Union. Nationalist, anti-immigration political parties have control of countries across the globe as many citizens have moved from despair to apathy.

Britta comforts herself by knowing she’s doing her part—providing a necessary service. She and her colleague Babak run The Bridge, a non-traditional anti-suicide service that uses Lassie, a sophisticated computer algorithm, to identify men with a high risk of suicide for intervention. However, though they have helped many disentangle themselves from suicidal thoughts, this practice actual conceals their true business: providing suicide bombers for terrorist groups.

If one of the clients goes through their twelve-step program and still wishes to die, Britta pairs him with an organization that wants to remind the world they still exist, perhaps ISIS or the Green Party. Since these organizations no longer have the cache they once did, they have trouble recruiting suicide bombers, and The Bridge has a monopoly on supply. When an organization works with The Bridge, they observe rules that benefit all, including a limit to collateral damage.

When a terrorist attack at the Leipzig airport is thwarted by authorities, Britta panics—the bombers, one of whom was killed, one captured—did not come from The Bridge. She divines that this indicates another provider is in operation and that she, Babak, and Julietta, their latest recruit, and only female, are in danger and go into hiding.

Empty Hearts had less action than I expected. However, there was interesting commentary on politics and the danger of apathy. As such, the focus remains on the philosophical themes. I wish there had been a shade more characterization. Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives.

Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives (Efficiency Packages) that promote discrimination. I was also disturbed when Richard, Britta’s husband, started pressuring her to be more “wifely.” I suppose I wanted her to object more vehemently.

The ending of the novel surprised me, and it wasn’t the ending I wanted, but I do think it was the right ending which made me think about the book long after I put it away. Empty Hearts starts a little slowly and picks up steam, but its strength is found the philosophical questions it raises about the current state of politics and the implications for the future.