MixedThe New York Time Book ReviewWissa’s transformation is finely traced and points to an important truth about the 2011 revolts. It was the young people, acting outside established parties, who taught their elders how to rise up and remove a dictator ... It is here that Aswany’s basically melodramatic approach to storytelling becomes a handicap. In his novel, the deep state’s response to the revolution is masterminded by the general of the opening scene. He effortlessly marshals Egypt’s media elite to turn on the protesters, branding them as foreign agents who can be shot down in the streets ... Rather than the messy, unscripted drama of fallible characters colliding with one another in the midst of a historical crisis, we have a soap opera in which a monolithic state apparatus batters its noble and self-sacrificing youth...This doesn’t leave much room for novelistic complication...It is also unsatisfying as history. What about the Egyptians who didn’t fall into either camp? Aswany treats the Muslim Brotherhood as an object of crude satire — like many Egyptian leftists, he regards Islamism as merely a mask for venality — and shows little interest in ordinary citizens who don’t support the revolution ... Aswany often mocks the conspiracy theories of sheikhs and army officers, who painted the revolution as a foreign plot. But his own novel ends up suggesting that the Egyptian state is exactly the sort of all-powerful and farseeing entity that its ideologues make it out to be — a myth the revolutionaries of 2011 spent so much blood to expose.
Adania Shibli, Trans. by Elisabeth Jaquette
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksThough Minor Detail initially promises to be a kind of counterhistory or whodunit—a rescue of the victim’s story from military courts and Israeli newspapers—it turns out to be something stranger and bleaker. Rather than a discovery of hidden truths, or a search for justice, it is a meditation on the repetitions of history, the past as a recurring trauma ... a brilliant beginning (skillfully translated by Elisabeth Jaquette), reminding us that landscapes aren’t neutral facts but the results of artistic as well as ideological cropping and framing ... Does Shibli’s retelling of this old atrocity make it into an allegory for the origins of Israel? She doesn’t imply that the crime is representative in any obvious sense. Instead, she carefully particularizes her version of the story, noting dates, fully imagining each scene and detail of camp life, situating the episode as a discrete moment of history. All of Shibli’s work points to a suspicion of allegory and its abstractions. She is at pains to locate the political dimensions of her fiction in the quotidian lives of individuals—especially those who feel alienated from any collective project.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksHage’s more pointed suggestion is that acts of violence are the result of a person’s embracing a particular identity. This usually means a sectarian identity, though Hage is also interested in how his characters define themselves as men (his female characters are notably short on self-reflection). They are caught in a peculiarly Lebanese dilemma: either accept one’s role in a community defined by its antagonism toward others, or else become invisible, impotent, disposable ... If sectarian identities are intractable and rigid, Hage’s new novel is a parade of deviants ... Hage has some heretical fun with this mix-and-match approach to religious mythology, and he’s obviously declaring his own affinities with the misfits and outcasts of the world. But while his novel has episodic pleasures, it never coheres. The book is structured as a series of digressions, somewhat in the style of The Arabian Nights, as Pavlov bounces off the oddballs who swerve in and out of his path. But these encounters only ever accumulate detail rather than momentum or interest (which can also be a problem with Hage’s awkwardly unfurling sentences).
PositiveThe New York Review of Books[Hammad\'s] book has a defiantly old-fashioned scope and pace, unhurriedly telling the story of one man’s life against the backdrop of turbulent times ... her writing isn’t virtuosic but patient and hardworking; there’s nothing obviously autobiographical about The Parisian; and though the book is thoroughly researched—a fact Hammad doesn’t hide—it is free of the buzzy omniscience that pervades fiction in the age of Google. Hammad lets the action speak for itself ... But The Parisian is no costume drama; it is a novel about Palestinian and Arab nationalism ... Its relevance to the present may be oblique, but it is real and urgent ... A consistent pleasure of Hammad’s novel is its detailed evocation of this late-Ottoman world, a world in many ways more fluid than our own, in which Syria and Palestine do not represent entirely distinct places or identities ... Hammad’s salons and smoke-filled apartments are full of animated talk, and her handling of dialogue is unusual ... The Arabic words...force readers to wonder whether they have full access to the thoughts and feelings of these particular, Palestinian characters—a more pointed and even disquieting idea ... Hammad’s novel is an argument against...essentialism ... In its suspicion of a fossilized patriarchy and its hope for popular and feminist agitation, in its lack of interest in the ideal of coexistence and its focus on nonviolent resistance...Hammad’s novel doubles as a diagnosis of the present.
RaveThe New York Review of BooksAn Unnecessary Woman is a kind of commonplace book, stuffed with citations from Aaliya’s favorite novels and poems. Everything that happens to her provokes a literary reminiscence... Her passion for translation is the prime source of the novel’s claim on its readers’ sympathies. The loneliness of this passion — and therefore the strength of our sympathies — is heightened by the idea, which Alameddine insists on, that Aaliya is pursuing her vocation in a cultural desert ... The story is told from a single point of view and, aside from a few flashbacks, it proceeds in straightforward fashion ... Here is moral capitulation, erotic pleasure, vanity, and surprising tenderness — fiction that matches the complexity of history. All the rest is literature.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewIt seems unfair to call Hisham Matar’s extraordinary new book a memoir, since it is so many other things besides: a reflection on exile and the consolations of art, an analysis of authoritarianism, a family history, a portrait of a country in the throes of revolution, and an impassioned work of mourning...Hisham Matar is no revolutionary. As a writer, he is more interested in the mysteries of domestic life than in the abstractions of politics. His book is not a declaration of independence from father or country, but precisely a study of roots and relations. For all its terrible human drama and grotesque political background, the most impressive thing about The Return is that it also tells a common story, the story of sons everywhere who have lost their fathers, as all sons eventually must.