Reviewed by Charlotte Bailey
It begins (“Baadoom!”) as Gaza is being bombed. The trail of destruction of human life becomes evident through the next few chapters – “I’m OK. What’s new? A student of mine got killed. It’s hardly the first time, is it?” This certainly isn’t a light read. Yet, cutting through the serious tone of the protracted conflict is a plot driven by relatable characters, sensitively portrayed. At the forefront are twenty-something year old twins Iman and Rashid, the latter tragically in love with a girl who does not love him back, as they struggle to find their way – their “destiny” – in a confusing world.
Against these mundane strains, the extraordinary horror of the war at the core of the book stands in stark contrast. Sabri – the eldest sibling – has had his legs blown off in a blast that also killed his wife and baby, while one of the most beautiful aspects of the novel is the depressingly evocative descriptions of the wartorn landscape. “Smoke leaked out of places where the earth had been hit, as though the horizon itself had been punctured; whorles of it twisted and expanding…”
Furthermore, Dabbagh masterfully represents the complexities of family relationships: the legless Sabri is slightly jealous that the significantly less studious Rashid has a scholarship to study in the UK. Rashid is used to getting stoned as a way of escaping, but now has a real way to get “out of it” and into the arms of his sort-of-girlfriend Lisa.
As such, the story moves to London where Rashid is amazed by the dryness of English toast. Here, the representation of the clash of cultures between Palestine, the Gulf and London and the tugging and confusion felt by these young, frequently displaced people, most acutely embodied in the unhappy and frustrated Iman, is heartbreaking. Uncomfortable in her own skin, simultaneously mindfully and mindlessly angry and determined not to become like her mother (who channels her dissident rage into pickling vegetables) she is easy prey for an extremist group. To avoid such a fate she is sent to join her father in the Gulf and then to be with Rashid in London. Her heart still in Palestine, like Rashid she is awestruck in London, in particular by how little people care about the suffering in her homeland that she affects her so acutely.
They all end up a little closer to understanding their “destiny”. For Rashid, his fate is shocking and unexpected but “once he found it he became wired with a sensitivity to his surroundings that he had never previously experienced.” The haunting ending to the novel is simultaneously uplifting and so, in its finale, the novel draws the reader into the dark bizarreness of war as it has done throughout the book.
Written by an author already praised for her short stories, this is a stunning debut. Compelling and evocative, it’s the book’s humanity that will truly touch readers.