As Nahr sits in solitary confinement, she spends her days reflecting on the dramatic events that landed her in prison in a country she barely knows. Born in Kuwait in the 70s to Palestinian refugees, she dreamed of falling in love with the perfect man, raising children, and possibly opening her own beauty salon. Instead, the man she thinks she loves jilts her after a brief marriage, her family teeters on the brink of poverty, she’s forced to prostitute herself, and the US invasion of Iraq makes her a refugee, as her parents had been.
Despite its unmistakable investment in (and affinity for) Palestine, Against the Loveless World isn’t what I would call a political novel. It’s a meditation on love and alienation in a setting that is by nature political, or imbued in multilingual politics, facing the West in audacious vulnerability. Its poetics can be harsh and its heartbreaks can be soothing. Such is the burden and blessing of the Palestinian novelist ... a tense but readable novel. The language alternates between exhilarating and contemplative. It relies almost completely on the strength of its narrator, but she is up to the challenge, guiding readers through histories fraught with tragedy and dispossession. I don’t view it strictly as a novel about Palestine; it’s more like a Palestinian statement of purpose ... We are given the opportunity to read Nahr’s life in a language foreign to American mythologies of progress and civilization. The entire book is a glossary ... Abulhawa provides a dynamic and challenging exploration of political violence, one that spans multiple geographies and periods of time ... Abulhawa delivers these cadences in prose that at first seems too beautiful for what it describes. In time, though, the reader comes to understand that the juxtaposition of beauty and suffering is essential to the novel’s geography — both the tiny cell from which Nahr narrates her life and the occupied country surrounding it. In the end, beauty prevails. We’re pushed to understand that the same fate awaits Palestine, which is, after all, the novel’s greatest affirmation of love.
Exhausted writers sometimes try to simplify their trade by boiling all stories down to only two essential trajectories: Someone comes to town, or someone moves away. But Susan Abulhawa’s third novel, Against the Loveless World, disproves this reductive hyperbole, artfully looping together comings and goings, entrances and exoduses, burials and birthdays in a humming narrative of human movement ... A rebellious spirit propels this story of statelessness, but the unburdened tone can also come off as unrealistic ... Known for her beautiful and urgent chronicling of the Palestinian struggle in fiction and poetry, Abulhawa skillfully situates Nahr in a life of friendship and family that is consistently upset by geopolitical changes and a volatile police state. In this sense, Nahr is a 21st-century everywoman, strong in her own mind but angry about how little control she has over her own life. Given the persistent attacks on her self-determination, it is easy to understand Nahr’s commitment to justice at any cost. But it’s less easy to feel it. Her toughness and sass are rarely counterbalanced with moments of vulnerability, or grief. The self-reflection in the novel often comes from the head rather than the heart, unidimensional interior monologues flecked with facts that serve more as platforms to explain the plight of Palestinian refugees, sex workers, liberation fighters. Nahr encounters so many tragedies that she can at times come off as a composite of women and the issues that plague them in this region, the novel too rarely pausing in her moments of weakness and exhaustion that might have distinguished her, illuminated the cost of passion for the powerless ... Those forced to leave the places of their birth to live elsewhere then have to tell stories to the people they encounter there. Not all communities are willing to listen to these messy narratives of displacement. In our current climate of isolationism, the transnational storyteller must do more than entertain — she must educate. In response to this demand, Abulhawa has created a spirited protagonist who lives invisibly and in opposition to her 'loveless world,; telling her own story on her own terms lest either her comings or goings be forgotten.