books, Debut Novel, Reading, Women Writers

Displacement, Discomfort, and Dysphoria: Brief Reviews of Two Recently Released Novels

IMG-0063“Mother of All Pigs” by Malu Halasa

          “‘Such a party last night.’ The words come out long and heavy like a sigh, but the inflection rises. She is soliciting his opinion.
          Hussein sits utterly still. He knows she would appreciate a conversation about the party, about Muna, about anything, but he needs to save the already depleted energy he has for the long day ahead.
          When she receives absolutely no acknowledgment Mother Fadhma’s small eyes narrow. She wants to scold him for eating too little and drinking too much; however, her silence was secured long ago. Even when he makes a fool of himself, as he did last night, she forgives him. On the rare occasion that she does summon the courage to rebuke him, her admonitions are gentle and consoling.”

In this debut novel from an American writer of Jordanian and Filipina descent, the reader gets a glimpse of life in a small, conflict-ridden, rural, border town in modern Jordan, a town in which Christian residents and the growing Muslim population of long-time residents and recent refugees are often at odds. The Sabas family, headed by three generations of fearsome women, does its best to coexist and get by.

“Although Laila harbors many doubts about the society in which she lives, she meticulously stays within conventional boundaries, and she expects those she lives with to do the same. Samira, her husband’s unmarried half sister, is particularly vulnerable since relatively little is needed -perhaps only a rumor of a girl’s indiscretion – for the entire town to become inflamed and a family ostracized forever. In a culture where a woman’s virtue is paramount, any defense of it is a sign of its erosion. Better to avoid scrutiny. The women of the Sabas family have to protect one another because no one else will.”

Hussein, the only man of the house, has returned from a somewhat secret military past and has become the town butcher. Led by his devious, black-market savvy uncle Abu Za’atar, Hussein becomes the areas only not-so-secret pig butcher, and his dealings of pork products puts his family on edge and often under threat from angry neighbors.

Halasa’s is an interesting look at religious and nationalist tensions from within the “Arab world”, a view not only of the clear challenges and dangers of political dissent and repression, but also of the not uncommon discontent of residents who feel displaced and disgruntled by “others”.

          “‘I just don’t know when the country will return to normal and our town will belong to us.’
          Hussein finds Mrs. Habash’s memory highly selective. The town has never been theirs. When their grandfathers and uncles and fathers – then small boys – first settled, they fought side by side against local nomads over a watering hold. Go back a few generations and someone somewhere is always fleeing or seeking sanctuary with strangers. The entire region has a long history of forced migration. The Syrians are not the first refugees, nor will they be the last.”

Though there were, sprinkled throughout “Mother of All Pigs”, moments of awkward dialogue where characters over explain facts and motives, clearly intended for the reader and not the audience, the story itself had compelling characters and was a promising start. With more editorial input and polish, I think Halasa’s voice could be more resonant and her narrative something special.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for providing an Advance Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Mother of All Pigs” was released in the US on November 14, 2017.

“Improvement” by Joan Silber

“Everyone knows this can happen. People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there. They feel distant from everyone at home who can’t begin to understand. They take up with beautiful locals of the opposite sex, they settle in, they get used to how everything works, they make homes. But maybe not forever.”

In “Improvement”, Joan Silber conducts some experiments with form that made me grin when I first caught wind of what was happening and now, a few weeks after having read the book, still bring an appreciative smile for the innovation. For a majority of the book, each chapter features a different protagonist. Though all part of one larger narrative, these characters play varied roles across time and space – from 1970s Turkey to divided Germany and to today’s New York. Each chapter’s main character is simultaneously a minor player in previous chapters – often merely an “extra” barely given a speaking part, but in her chapter, just like each of us in our own lives, she is the center, the heroine. It is the literary equivalent of that game one sometimes plays while idling in traffic, trying to guess the stories taking place in the cars all around. It is the motif so brilliantly applied in the “I Love New York” episode of “Master of None” (if you haven’t seen it, DO!).

With characters young and old from various backgrounds and cultures, “Improvement” is tough to summarize. As its title might suggest, it is potentially about striving to better oneself and situation. The characters are often witty, more often self-destructive, and hopefully learning from their pasts.

Where “Mother of All Pigs” seemed a bit raw, its writing needing a bit more editorial polish, “Improvement” was perhaps a bit too polished, losing its edge and dulling its impact. Even with the truncated stories necessitated by a shift in protagonist at each chapter’s end, characters often felt a little too known, plastic, flat. The innovative construct was this book’s shining star and what made it a memorable and enjoyable read. Recommend for a vacation or beach read, when charming structure and engaging plot just the ticket.

Thank you to Counterpoint for providing an Advance Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “Improvement” was released in the US on November 14, 2017.

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