Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa
Published by Atria Books
Publication date: August 25, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
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Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa is about Nahr, whose name means “river”, in Arabic. She has been in solitary confinement for 16 years in a cell she calls the Cube somewhere in modern-day Israel. For her, time has no meaning. Her environment is so strictly controlled that she doesn’t know when the shower will run or the toilet will flush. Her window is so small it doesn’t reflect the hours. With no place to go, Nahr wanders the infinite expanse of her mind, going back to the life and past that brought her to this forsaken concrete room.
As a girl Nahr grew up in Kuwait, where her family settled after being forced out of Palestine in the 1940s. She lives in a ghetto with her mother, brother, and paternal grandmother. Her life is a tangled one. For one thing, she has several names—the one she was given at birth (Yaqoot, that of her father’s girlfriend), the one her mother gives her (Nahr) and a temporary one she uses in her life as an escort. She is a bride at 18 to a man she hardly knows who later disappears. At 19 she is a dancer and escort, earning the money needed to send her brother to a foreign university, but knowing
Each bought a little piece of me and took it away forever. I remember them all.
Her family doesn’t know about her alternate life until it all comes crashing down with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. This occurs at a pivotal and violent point in her life so she sees the Iraqis as liberators from Kuwait’s treatment of Palestinians. When America arrives, the retaliation is swift and brutal. Nahr and her brother are arrested and accused of collaborating with the Iraqis. He is detained and tortured before finally being released. They, along with half a million other Palestinians, emigrate to Jordan. In order to truly move on, she travels to Palestine to request a divorce from her husband’s family, but ends up staying there, finding a deeper love than she ever expected. Her quick-thinking mind lends itself to helping the people around her survive in their land as Israeli foreigners use deceit and force to take it away. And life, like the handcuffs now around her wrists, comes full circle.
My synopsis pales against the way Abulhawa creates, then breathes life into Nahr and each of the individuals around her. She is unflinching in her portrayal of this flawed and indomitable woman who stops at nothing to protect those she loves. Her life is largely one of being a downtrodden outsider, even when she returns to the land that her family had owned for generations. The pain and devastation of so many lives is relayed bluntly with no embellishment, but joy explodes with the same unspoken grace Nahr experiences when she dances. Abulhawa’s writing shines light into the dark corners, with food being shared even when there’s not enough, parties thrown when a relative has been released from prison. Amidst the grinding poverty and discrimination, there is love and family and the fight to preserve both.
Through Nahr’s story Abulhawa outlines a history that is not one I was ever taught or have ever heard discussed. There has only ever been one viewpoint expressed in the America I inhabit—that of the imperative after World War II of establishing a Jewish state. Israel. I knew there was conflict between Israel and Palestine, but it was most often couched with the Palestinians’ being terrorists. Half a world away, I had little reason to give the details much thought. Now, I grapple with a fictional account of one woman’s life, that, at the very least, presents a dichotomous viewpoint. One that reminds me of America’s treatment of this country’s indigenous people. A land grab. Colonialism. A continuing encroachment, using underhanded tactics and outright force, to take land from the people who originally lived there.
I realize this is a highly sensitive subject. I’m not knowledgeable enough to argue the nuances of Israeli-Palestinian relations, but Against the Loveless World is one more book in 2020 that’s opened my eyes to a side of the story I didn’t know. Properly done, a good novel gets you from point A to point B. A great novel makes it a journey. An outstanding novel makes what’s happening along the way as riveting as the destination. Against the Loveless World is a stunning, outstanding novel.
*I received a free copy of this book from Atria Books in exchange for an honest review.*
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