City on Fire: Garth Risk Hallberg

An ambitious debut, City on Fire paints a portrait of New York in the 60s and 70s, following a group of people as they try to make (or unmake) their lives in the city.

The book begins during Christmas 1976/New Year 1977. It is the time of punk and there is revolution in the air. Mercer is a young black man come up from Alabama to take up a job as a teacher, hoping to break free of his family down South. His lover, William Hamilton-Sweeney, is an artist, also known as Billy Three Sticks when he played in Ex Post Facto, a punk rock band. The Hamilton-Sweeneys are among the richest families in New York, but William has broken with them, including with his beloved sister Regan. His band has been taken over by the appropriately named Nicky Chaos, who becomes obsessed by William. Sam, a young photographer, is a fan of Ex Post Facto and produces her own magazine (zine), which is part diary and part music review.  Charlie, a boy in high school, is in love with Sam and trying to come to terms with his father’s death. Richard Gosford is a veteran journalist writing a story on Sam’s father, a pyrotechnician (fireworks maker, simply put). Deputy Inspector Pulaski is investigating the shooting with which the first part of the book ends. And behind so much of the story is the master manipulator, the Demon Brother, Amory Gould—the brother of Felicia Gould, William and Regan’s stepmother—who is working slowly and surely to take over the Hamilton-Sweeney empire. Although, for me, it is the two creative spirits, Sam and William, who are at the heart of this book.

I will not try to summarize the plot: this is a sprawling book, teeming with characters and plotlines, many of which crisscross each other. The two defining moments are the shooting in the early hours of 1 January 1977 and the New York blackout in July that year. But the story ranges much wider than that: it keeps looping back in time, going over the 1960s and 1970s, stopping for “interludes”—a letter from William’s father, Richard’s article, Sam’s zines—and looping back again, with occasional glimpses into the 2000s as a “where are they now” device. The layering builds up the characters and their stories, sometimes narrating the same incident from different perspectives. This is a novel that sucks you into its world.

And the panorama is huge: from gatherings of the rich to junkies, from punk rock bands to the art world, from pyrotechnics to the corporate world, gay, straight, anarchists, corporate manipulators: you have it all. In its scope, it feels almost Dickensian, doing for New York what Dickens did for London, the city a character in its own right.

Garth Risk Hallberg writes well—some of his writing is like photography, capturing a moment in time. Regan in her father’s study: “At sunset, the south-westerly light, unobstructed by any higher building between here and the river, poured through the jewelbox windows. It has made her feel like a passenger on the Titanic: the vessel was doomed, but the memory would be extravagant.” And I love the way Hallberg describes people: Amory tries to persuade Keith, Regan’s husband, to join the family firm. “Amory’s gestures grew somewhat quantitative, like the gestures of a man trying to purchase fabric in a language he doesn’t speak. The Quanto costa gesture, the No, I couldn’t possibly, the Lachesis gesture of measuring something out to have it cut off. … Keith nodded, like a bird following a bit of waved seed.”

As a debut book, this is impressive. It really captures the 60s and 70s in New York, the social mores and what it must have felt like. The book’s weakness is that it is way too long. There were times I got a impatient with the level of detail, which is really not necessary. Pared down, it would have been a more powerful book.

Listening to the Writer’s Voice

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writer's voiceI’m looking at close to half an hour of standing over the stove, staring into a pot as I stir, maybe stepping away for a few seconds at a time to check on this or that, open the refrigerator and put something away, or just look out the window. I block out the impatient honks from the main road and the rushing motorbikes going way too fast for the narrow streets in my residential area. I put on my newly acquired air pods and flip through my list of podcasts. I really don’t feel like the news, or even news-spinoffs right now. Nor am I in the frame of mind for smart social science. I just want to be told a good old story.

And even better if the story is told by the one who made it all up.

The Writer’s Voice, a podcast from The New Yorker features new fiction read aloud by authors. Curated by the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, the series is a little over two years old, and now offers a cache of 95 audio stories, with a new reading added every week.

I’ve often caught stories on the podcast that I had passed over in the magazine, or have listened to stories that I had already encountered on the page, and both experiences have been interesting. A story in the June 25, 2018 issue of the magazine, “The Luck of Kokura” for instance, did not grab me in the first few sentences, but I chose to listen to the author,  Gary Shteyngart, reading it for the podcast, and where the I had been unable to turn the page of the printed magazine, I did keep my ear–and my mind–on the reading. Maybe it’s a commitment one makes to listening, especially when it’s the writer’s voice calling, or maybe it is just that one is in any case not doing anything else with the time (remember, I am in the kitchen staring at simmering sambar), but I was fascinated by Shteyngart’s account of a hedge fund manager gone rogue, a sort of between-the-lines psychological study of this peculiar demographic I’ve never been able to understand: Young, Ivy-League educated, highly driven, materially-invested number-crunchers on Wall Street. A story that I had enjoyed in the magazine, “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (October 3, 2017), came alive in a different way when I listened to Bynum’s reading, making me feel the father’s yearning to be part of his tween daughter’s world, looking for clues to it on her Instagram feed and on the drive to physiotherapy after ballet class. And of course, who would not want to hear old favourites like Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri read their work, rendered doubly lyrical by word and voice?

Of course, authors are not always the best readers, and a well-written story can become a little less than it is when rendered in an unremarkable voice (there’s a reason why Books on Tape gets actors to read!). But most readers would be willing to cut the writer some slack in this regard–and in some ways, it makes the author something of a “regular person”.

If truth be told, I’ve never been one for audiobooks. I had always assumed that listening would never quite be the same as reading, firmly believing that my seeing eye soaked in more meaning than my hearing ear ever could, that writing needed to be pored over for its elegance and power to really be felt. And yes, give me a book to hold any day over a pair of earbuds and a listening device–there is a definite pleasure in letting one’s eyes travel over a page full of well-written prose. But The Writer’s Voice gives me stories in spaces where I would otherwise not find them, and lets me bring stories into places that otherwise become tedious to occupy–like my car on an hour-long commute.

 

Paper Towns: John Green

“The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle. … My miracle was this: in all the houses of all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.”

The book is narrated by Quentin Jacobsen, a 17-year-old close to finishing high school in Orlando, Florida. Quentin is a little in love with the free-spirited girl next door. The difference between the two is demonstrated by an incident when they were children. They come across a dead man by a tree. Quentin is horrified, wants to run back and inform the adults, but Margo moves to the corpse to have a closer look. That night she climbs into Quentin’s room through the window. She has been doing a bit of detecting and tells Quentin that the man committed suicide. “Maybe all the strings inside him broke”, she says.

In high school, they drift apart. Quentin is still fascinated by Margo, but she has other friends—Becca and Lacey—and is dating a guy called Jason, while Quentin hangs out with the guys in the band, Ben and Radar. Until one night when Margo taps on his window, talks him into “borrowing” his mother’s car and takes him off on a night’s adventure. She is out for revenge and a bit of fun: Jason has been cheating on her with Becca. The night involves dead fish, paint, Vaseline, and breaking into SeaWorld in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning, Quentin cannot wait to get to school and see Margo. But she does not show up, either that day or the next. Margo has run away from home before, leaving clues to her whereabouts—she does not get on with her parents. Although her parents dismiss her disappearance as an attention-grabbing tactic, they eventually call the police.

But Margo is battling her own demons and is more fragile than any of them realize. Looking down at Orlando on that eventful night, Margo calls it a paper town: “All those paper people in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. … Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All things paper-thin and paper-frail.” In an echo of what she said about the dead man all those years ago, she says of Jason’s and Becca’s betrayal, “It was the last string. It was a lame string, for sure, but it was the only one I had left, and every paper girl needs at least one string, right?”

This image of strings being cut, leaving children adrift, runs through the book. Detective Otis Warren, who is investigating Margo’s disappearance, tells Quentin about kids like Margo: “These kids, they’re like tied-down helium balloons. They strain against the string and they strain against it, and then something happens, and that string gets cut, and they just float away. … Once that string gets cut, kid, you can’t uncut it.”

Quentin is convinced that, this time, instead of leaving clues for her parents, she has left them for him. With a bit of help from Ben, Radar and Lacey, he tries to decipher them, and the trail leads them on a road trip in search of Margo.

The book is really about finding someone you love—not just physically but in the sense of really seeing them for who they are. Quentin only starts to see Margo as a real person after she has been gone for a while. He had idolized her for so long that he only saw the daring, larger-than-life person he had created. Everyone had their own version of Margo, and none of them encompassed the complexity of the whole person. But the search for Margo brings Quentin closer to understanding her—and himself. At the end of the book, he says: “I could see her almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”

I loved this book. I have to say I grinned through the first couple of chapters. Margo dominates the book although she is only there for a short time—she is present in her absence, so to speak. It takes you back to what it was to be 17 again, when the world was open with possibilities. John Green mixes the humour, the ups and downs of being a teenager with insights on how we relate to one another.

Des ailes au loin: Jadd Hilal

Loosely translated as Away on Wings, this is a story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life. For the moment, it is available only in French, but there is a good chance that it will be translated into English.

The book is a fictionalized account of the lives of four women in Jadd Hilal’s family: his grandmother, Naïma, his mother, Ema, his sister, Dara, and his niece, Lila. (Disclosure: Jadd Hilal’s sister is my colleague, Zeina Hilal.) The book moves between the women, who narrate their lives. Their journeys weave back and forth over Western Asia and Europe. Through the voices of these four strong women, Hilal builds up a picture of how wars and insecurity reverberate on the lives of ordinary people.

The story begins in Haifa, the then capital of Palestine, with Naïma as a young girl. In 1937, she narrowly escapes being killed when the Haganah bomb a marketplace, and her family leave for Shefa Amr in the north. When she is 10, a young man, Jahid, comes to their house and asks for her hand, and by the time Naïma is 12, she is married.

During the civil war in Palestine in 1947, Naïma and Jahid were forced to leave Palestine, so they move to Baalbek in Lebanon—not to the historic city she had imagined, but a refugee camp on its outskirts. Jahid gets a job at UNESCO, Naima is pregnant and the growing family stays on in the city. Until they move again, this time to Damascus. Their daughter, Ema, does not want to leave (like her daughter Dara many years later). For her, airports are “places from where people leave when they stop caring… where the others, with chains of their feet, watch them”. [1]

The family move back to Lebanon. Ema goes to the University of Beirut and marries Zahi, a fellow student, to escape her father’s domination. In June 1982, the war comes to Lebanon. Ema is by now working with the ILO and Zahi with ESCWA (the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and they have two children, Dara and Majid. When ESCWA moves its offices from Beirut to Baghdad, the family moves too. But as soon as she can, Ema returns with her children. It is not for long. In 1983, civil war breaks out in the country, and Ema and the children have to leave again, this time for Geneva, the ILO’s headquarters. Dara does not want to leave—she sees leaving as abandonment, much like her mother did.

Dara’s years in Europe only make her more determined to return to Lebanon. At 18, she returns and marries Lotfi, a mason. For some years, she lives a simple and contented life in a village with her husband and children, Lila and Riad. Then in 2006, the Hezbollah capture Israeli soldiers and Israel retaliates with bombs. It is no longer safe, and Dara manages to escape with her children, heading back to Geneva.

Hilal’s writing is lyrical, and brings the women to life: Ema, caught between home and university, without a space to be herself. “I lead two lives,” she says, “but not one in which I feel I can breathe freely.” Dara, with a strong maternal instinct to compensate for her own mother; Lila, annoyed that she won’t be listened to until she is an adult when she has so much to say. And Naïma, dealing with the grief in her life: “I am used to pain. … Suffering becomes a shadow. It lengthens. … But it is always there, waiting for an image, a smell or a taste to show itself.”

The book ends with a sense of calm, of journeys winding down. But the new generation is getting ready to take off. Lila was a child when the bomb that killed the Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri went off. But that is not what she remembers from that day. It is seeing three birds flying out into the distance and thinking that if she closed her eyes tight she would find, on opening them:

“I will find myself flying.
“I will have the one thing that no one else has.
“I will have wings.”

[1] The translations are mine.

The Golden House: Salman Rushdie

The 2000 elections in the US are underway. A man and his three adult sons move to New York from an unnamed city in an unnamed country. Armed with new, classical names—Julius Nero Golden and his sons Petronicus or Petya, Lucius Apuleius or Apu (a nod to his origins) and Dionysus or D.—they decide to rid themselves of any connection with their past. Or, at least Nero does, and his word is law. When asked by his youngest son what they should say when asked where they are from, Nero says, “Tell them we are snakes who shed our skin. … Say we are from nowhere or anywhere or somewhere, we are make-believe people, frauds, reinventions, shapeshifters…. Do not tell them the name of the place we left. Never speak it. Not the street, not the city, not the country. I do not want to hear those names again.”

The family settles down in the Macdougal-Sullivan Gardens Historic District, or the Gardens, “a place of happy retreat from the disenchanted fearful world beyond its borders”. The book is narrated by one of their neighbours, René, a young budding film director. Through him, we get to know the Goldens: Petya, who has Aspergers and is terrified of going outside; the artistic Apu, a man about town; and D. who is going through a gender identity crisis. And Vasilisa, a beautiful young Russian woman, who comes into Nero’s life, moving in and slowly taking over, playing her game with the skill and patience of a chess master. René thinks that they would be a good subject for a mockumentary and makes it a point to get close to them. Before long, he is drawn into their make-believe narrative and their tangled lives.

But the past seeps in through the cracks, and the family starts to unravel. The place of which they never speak is India, and the unnamed city Mumbai. Ostensibly, the Goldens left because Nero’s wife was killed in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. The truth is a lot more complicated, as Apu finds out when he goes back looking for his roots.

The story of the family plays out against the backdrop of the twists and turns of American political life, from the Obama years to the beginning of the Trump administration. Trump is the Joker, ushering in a time when “knowledge was ignorance, up was down and the right person to hold the nuclear codes was the green-skinned red-slashed-mouthed giggler”.

Rushdie creates a rich world teeming with characters: Ubah, the Somali artist with whom both Apu and Petya fall in love; Murray Lett, an Australian hypnotist with a bouffant hairstyle who comes to help Petya deal with his fears; Riya, the young woman who helps D. figure out his identity; and U Lnu Fnu, the Burmese diplomat who lets René use his flat to access the Gardens after René moves out. I love Rushdie’s way with words. When Petya tries to go outside, he panics and ends up in a police cell. “Only Nero’s arrival in a large, grave, apologetic limousine saved the day.”

My quibbles with the book are that it takes a while to get started, and there are way too many references to film, which can get a little distracting. But it’s a great story and well worth reading.

Rushdie’s main preoccupation here is identity, whether it is D. trying to understand who he really is, Nero trying to shed his skin or Vasilisa forging a new life for herself. Or for that matter, America itself, swinging from a president who embodied certain values to another who made nonsense of them. But in the end, you cannot escape your past: it is never dead—merely dormant, waiting for an opportunity to strike. And in the case of the Goldens, that is exactly what happens.

No sweet song, this

book coverLullaby by Leila Slimani

Translated from the French Chanson Douce (2016) by Sam Taylor (Faber & Faber, 2018)

I encountered Leila Slimani and her work in the New York Times Review of Books, months before the English translation came to market. My fingers raced across the keyboard to Amazon, only to find I had to wait four months before copies would become available, and for the first time ever (okay, outside of pre-ordering the Harry Potter books for my daughter) I placed an order and held my breath.

The opening sentence, which plays on the book jacket above the title, and repeated in multiple reviews in multiple papers around the world, is a bare, unadorned statement.

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.

So you have the grisly end to the story, which is the beginning of an exploration of the multiple complexities that structure our lives and the dynamics that ensue when people from different worlds come together. A young couple, intelligent, ambitious, and aware in the manner of the urbane liberal middle class, wish to hire a nanny to care for their two children when the mother, a brilliant lawyer, goes back to work after a baby break. “No illegal immigrants, agreed?….to look after the little ones, it’s too dangerous.” Says Myriam to her husband, Paul, as they stage their small apartment to convey an assurance they barely feel, to receive the applicants for the post. “She is awaiting this nanny as if she is the Savior.”

Louise is perfect (the title of the North American edition is The Perfect Nanny), with a face “like a peaceful sea, its depths suspected by no one.” She brings the much-needed order to their household, coaxing the children into good behaviour and rustling up delectable home-cooked meals that win the work-worn hearts of the parents who return from their demanding jobs, tired and grateful. Most importantly, she gives them back their time with each other, allowing them to rediscover an intimacy they had lost to parenthood.

But Louise’s own life is cold and empty, one of rejection, deprivation, and a million broken dreams and as she fills it, more and more, with the lives of Miriyam’s children, Mila and Adam,  “The silent apartment is completely under her power, like an enemy begging for forgiveness.”

Lullaby is a thriller told in reverse, a deliberate forensic examination of how something comes to be. The deliberate distance maintained by the narration, as if you are watching it all unfold through a six-inch thick pane of glass, in slow motion, makes it all the more powerful. Slimani takes us deep into the emotional labyrinth of motherhood, where it is not all sacrifice and smiles, but also resentment, rage, regret, confusion. She carefully dissects the hypocrisies of class difference, complicated as it is these days with carefully hidden attitudes to race, ethnicity and gender. She explores what it means to nurture children that are not your own, who unhesitatingly betray your love by running into a parent’s arms the moment you set them down. Miriyam and Paul love Louise, but they are also a little frightened of her, and at times, hate that they are reminded that they have so much, and she, so little. After all, they live in a fashionable part of Paris, a neighbourhood where people “offer friendly greetings even if they don’t know each other” while Louise escapes every day from a bare one-room apartment to fulfil Miriyam’s “guiltily nursed” fantasies of an idyllic family life.

We know how it all ends, but the fascination with the question of why keeps one reading. Apart from the central characters—Louise, Miriyam, Paul and the children—there are others, bit players in this drama that shapes people, shapes events.

Slimani’s style is one of short, sometimes even brusque, sentences that allow the scene to unfold, but don’t let you linger. The novel moves forward in tension-filled bursts, told almost entirely in present tense, giving the reader the sense that you can’t tarry or you might be left behind as the narrative moves relentlessly towards its end.

It’s no surprise that the novel won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016. It is nothing like your regular whodunit; after all, we know who did it right from the start.

Are book reviews important?

Book reviewsGiven the content of this blog, it’s pretty clear where I stand on this. But there are writers who question the point of a book review and can be scathing about reviewers.

In this article in The New Statesman, Chris Power defends the point of the review.

“Reviews don’t matter. ‘I never really trust reviews,’ said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. … When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’.

“Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes ‘book reviews, not books’ as ‘the principal engines of change in the history of thought’; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign? …

“Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points.”

Read the full article, What’s the point of book reviews?.

Photo: Thad Zajdowicz

Recognizing the Talent of the Translator: The Subtle Art of Translating

From time to time, this blog showcases books in translation to tempt readers to explore writing from countries that do not always make it to the bestseller lists. But we often overlook the work of the translator, who has not only to be fluent in two languages but has to be able to write. The fact that we read books written in other languages is not simply because they have been rendered into another language (English, in this case) but also because the translation does justice to the original.

Rachel Cooke in this article for The Guardian, says that the quality of the translation is paramount.

“Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.”

Read the full article on The Guardian website. Cooke’s article is followed by short pieces by translators of some well-known foreign writers.

The Known World: Edward P. Jones

A little-known fact about slavery in the United States is that a few black people owned slaves. In some cases, freed blacks bought their parents, spouses or children, but there were others who owned slaves for economic reasons.[1] This is the story that Edward P. Jones tells us in The Known World.

It begins with the death in 1855 of Henry Townsend, a black slave owner. Henry’s parents, Augustus and Mildred, were owned by a white landowner, William Robbins. Once Augustus had saved enough money, he bought his freedom and later Mildred’s. But Robbins was reluctant to part with Henry and kept raising the price. By the time Augustus had enough money to free Henry, he was a teenager and had absorbed some of Robbins’s ideas.

While Augustus and Mildred make a conscious decision never to own slaves, William doesn’t follow their example. Robbins takes Henry under his wing; he becomes a landowner and buys his first slave, Moses—with whom the book begins and ends—and then buys others who work in his house and on his fields. But when both owners and slaves are black—and often the owners themselves were once slaves—keeping clear boundaries between them can become a little complicated.

This is such a rich book that I am not going to summarize the plot because I would not be able to do it justice. Jones picks up on the nuances of human relations. No one here is wholly good or wholly bad. Each person comes alive and has his or her story told: Alice, a slave said to have lost her mind; Caldonia, William’s widow who now has the responsibility of running the farm; and Fern, a schoolteacher with a gambling husband. Jones narrates their lives and does it skillfully, so the book, instead of being a series of fragments, is instead a rich tapestry of life in the Southern US. The sheer number of characters means that I sometimes had trouble keeping track of them. (There is a list, but it’s at the end, so I didn’t find it until I had finished reading the book.)

From time to time, Jones pulls back for a wide-angle shot, and we see the characters as they are now and as they will be. Elias, a slave on the Townsend property, whittles a doll for his little girl, Tessie, the day Henry dies. She is told by an adult that it is not right to skip when someone has died. “Tessie would soon be six years old and being the child of her parents who she was, she listened and stopped skipping. Tessie would live to be ninety-seven years old, and the doll her father was making for her would be with her until her last hour.” Tessie was both the child and the old woman, much as we all are—the sum of our various selves at different stages in our lives.[2]

Slavery was an insidious institution and tainted all who came in contact with it, whether slave or free, or black, white or Cherokee. There is plenty here about the cruelty, repression and injustice of the period, but there is also love, understanding and attempts—sometimes successful—to break free of the chains. The book picks up the lives of those who survive and manage to go north to forge better lives.

I would recommend this book: it is beautifully written and one of the best  I’ve read this year.

[1] If you want to know more about this, read “Did Black People Own Slaves?” on The Root.

[2] Paul Auster does something similar in Winter Journal.

A Land Without Jasmine: Wajdi Al-Ahdal, translated by William Maynard Hutchins

Over the last year, Yemen has been in the news, its people suffering the ravages of war and famine. I realized that I knew very little about the country, especially what it had been like to live there before the troubles began. I’ve always found fiction to be the best way in to understand a society, especially if the writer is from the country/community. Fiction takes you into people’s homes and minds in a way that non-fiction does not.

So I got myself this book, written by Wajdi Al-Ahdal, one of Yemen’s best-known writers. In 2003, he had to leave Yemen because his book Qawarib Jabaliya (Mountain Boats) upset radical conservatives. He was eventually able to return but I somehow don’t think this book is going to endear him to the conservatives—he writes not only about the way women are treated in this very patriarchal society but also about women’s sexuality. They are seen as both the keepers of the family’s honour and objects of desire.

The centre of this book is Jasmine, a young woman living in Sana’a. She is bright and beautiful, focused on her studies. Until one day she doesn’t come home from university. No one can find her—she seems to have vanished into thin air. And for many of the people around her, a land without Jasmine is a diminished place.

Each chapter is narrated by a different person, starting with Jasmine herself. She complains about the male gaze that follows her everywhere: whether it’s the shopkeeper across the street or the construction workers on her way to the university; men ogle her and seem to follow her every move, in spite of the veil and long black coat she wears when she leaves the house. She feels that she is suffocating under this constant watchfulness, “a noxious type of male violence”.

It is not only older men who are obsessed with Jasmine. Ali, the adolescent boy in the flat opposite hers, is in love with her. They used to be friends until Jasmine’s father thought she was too old to be hanging out with boys. So now, unable to speak to her or approach her, he waits every morning for Jasmine to leave for university and follows her like a shadow.

When one day she doesn’t come home, her father and brothers go looking for her, convinced that she has in some way sullied the family’s honour. It seems like that men in the family and the clan are more worried about their honour than about what happened to Jasmine. The only people who seem to really care are her mother, Ali, the man running the café at the university and the policemen investigating her disappearance.

All of them take turns at telling their side of the story. And each narration adds yet another piece to Jasmine’s story. And because she is the first character you meet, you can separate the truth from people’s perceptions of her. The last chapter goes back to Jasmine herself, through her mother who finds Jasmine’s diary, which hints at events much stranger than anyone had imagined.

This is a slim book at just 82 pages. The end is intriguing, but I am not sure whether I completely believe it. It isn’t the element of magic realism that bothers me but the woman writing the diary feels very different from the woman in the first chapter. Even allowing for the secret lives we all lead inside our heads, I found it a little hard to believe. At some level it feels like a male fantasy, the kind that has been dogging Jasmine all her adult life, even though it is supposed to be her diary.

In spite of that, I found it a fascinating glimpse into a country and a culture that I really didn’t know much about.