Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas
Published by W.W. Norton
Publication date: January 10, 2023
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Cultural, Literary
Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas opens with a charred corpse being found near a humanitarian aid compound that sits in a remote village on the border between north and South Sudan. The body’s discovery is the grim reminder that violent clashes between the government and rebels are increasing. This is the first in a series of events that upsets the fragile balance between the compound’s five occupants. They’ve quietly co-existed as strangers, but are now forced to confront their differences as national tensions rise.
Saraaya is based around an agricultural community that also interacts with the nomadic population from the north. So small it doesn’t even have electricity it is still home to four spoken languages. The compound is just as diverse with Alex, a 27-year-old Midwesterner as the principal resident. Despite never having never traveled outside the U.S. he’s chosen this job to update maps of the region. He relies on William, a South Sudanese translator and fixer, to facilitate the process. Dena, is a young Sudanese-American documentary filmmaker. Local help is provided by Layla, their cook, and Mustafa, a 12-year-old boy, who cleans and runs errands.
Relations in the compound have been polite, but limited. Abbas reinforces this using familiar work/life situations while she carefully layers in the inner lives and backstory of the Sudanese characters, giving them a nuance that lends Ghost Season its intimacy. The same is not true of Alex, the story’s weakest character. He is a stereotypically entitled, boorish American male. His attitude and the premise of someone choosing to work in a foreign country don’t align as he refuses any interaction with or education about the local culture and norms. He’s an unpleasant placeholder in the case against American intervention and adds almost nothing to the story.
While the crux of Ghost Season is global themes of identity, perception, the effects of climate change, and political upheaval, Abbas plays them off against the universality of simple concepts like marriage, happiness, and financial security. The juxtapositions of the everyday against the corrosive impact of guerilla war on local populations is driven home when a happy communal event ends in tragedy. This movement between the ordinary and the unthinkable throughout Ghost Season gives the novel a lurching feel. It may be echoing the precarious nature of life in a war-torn country, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I was left appreciative of Abbas’ writing, but conflicted by the story.
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