BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa [in Shelf Awareness]

Returning to the Palestinian multi-generational epic format that made her debut novel, Mornings in Jenin (2010), an international bestseller, Susan Abulhawa’s haunting Against the Loveless World features another extended Palestinian clan enduring exile, surviving persecution, and (sometimes) cheating death.

Abulhawa’s compelling cipher is a woman with four names, each imbued with significant meaning. Born in Kuwait, her 1967 birth certificate identifies her as Yaqoot, chosen by her father without her mother’s consent, a nod to the first of his many mistresses. Her mother called her Nahr, meaning river, honoring the River Jordan she crossed while pregnant to escape what would be declared the Six Day War. She was Nanu to her beloved younger brother, for whose education she would later become Almas, meaning diamond, made resistant but valuable. Decades later, as a middle-aged woman, she’s imprisoned in the Cube in Israel, condemned as a terrorist. Trapped in high-tech solitary confinement, she’s secured a pencil, then paper, after a long battle with the guards – “I won” – that included writing obscenities in menstrual blood and feces on her cell wall. “I stare at the blank pages now, trying to tell my story.” And so she begins: “My life returns to me in images, smells, and sounds, but never feelings. I feel nothing.”

With that detachment in place, Nahr – her preferred moniker “for the purer part of [her]” – reveals a difficult, rebellious life. She married, at 18, boorish Mhammad, who called her Tamara in bed and left two years later to return to his true love. She was befriended by an older Iraqi Kuwaiti woman who manipulated her into prostitution; with her father’s death, her soul-stealing earnings supported her family. Her ability to “be [her] family’s breadwinner, the powerful woman who took care of others” was not without pride: “There was something alluring about living on the margins, in secret disrepute.” Savage politics displaced the family again, ejecting them from Kuwait into Jordan. Finally seeking divorce from long-missing Mhammad, Nahr traveled to Palestine where her still-in-laws’ unconditionally warm welcome inspired new hope, even new love. But in her ancestral homeland, she also witnessed the relentless subjugation, torture, even murder of her people. Being a bystander was not an option.

Like Nahr, Abulhawa herself was born in Kuwait in 1967 to Palestinian exiles who fled the Six Day War. Through Nahr, Abulhawa seamlessly, affectingly parallels Palestine’s brutal, occupied history during the last half-century, humanizing headlines with names, families, dates, memories that belong to people with whom readers can identity, believe, empathize, mourn, and ultimately, albeit tentatively, celebrate.

Shelf Talker: A Palestinian woman trapped in solitary confinement remains unbowed as she records her decades of displacements, disappointments, betrayals – intertwined with glimmers of hope, joy, and undying love.

Review: Shelf Awareness Pro, July 31, 2020

Readers: Adult

Published: 2020

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