... masterly ... That’s the power of mass violence: its ability to transform specific loss into general loss, numbing our collective consciousness. This is why novelists like Khalifa are so critical in these times. They give us a story, and stories are specific ... Many fine American writers have claimed the mantle of Faulkner’s successor through their chronicling of life in the South. But Faulkner wasn’t writing only about the South. He was writing about civil war, too. With Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa has, intentionally or not, also laid claim to that title.
... astonishing ...The journey recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the long last ride of Addie Bundren; like Faulkner too, Khalifa employs a shifting array of voices and reflections, moving from perspective to perspective, present to past and back again. The effect is a persistent deepening, as stories are introduced and then revisited, details added through the play of memory ... The power of the novel... is that it unfolds within a human context, which pushes against and resists the prevailing social one. What other option do we have?
Khalifa is a soulful and perfectly unsentimental writer. This helps fortify his work against glib resolutions and make it more wildly ready for life’s raw light and that unrelenting human desire to live it. Notwithstanding its title, his fifth novel is more about life than death. Leri Price, who has translated Khalifa before, is alive and faithful to the Syrian’s unadorned and direct prose, sentences that often bring together the poetic and the horrific ... A civil war is a national tragedy, but it is also, and perhaps most poignantly, a personal trial. The most amazing thing about this book is that it managed to exist, that it came to us out of the fire with its pages intact. It is robust in its doubts, humane in its gaze and gentle in its persistence.
... a masterpiece ... These are images from a nightmare, tales from dead men. And yet Khalifa, writing from Damascus and refusing to abandon it despite the mass exodus of his friends and family, has rendered these images with hyperrealism alongside a sense of poetry ... offer[s] the reader an intimate and devastating look into a Syria fractured by war, hunger, and distrust ... This is a Syria not offered by news footage nor articles, but holding the painful emotional truth of a Syrian describing what he sees as the world ends ... Even with this pervasive darkness, what struck me most about Death is Hard Work is the interplay between darkness and light. Death hovers over the whole of the book, and yet its core is flooded with light ... These moments are full of abundant beauty and tenderness, and they anchor the book in something that transcends death even as its black water rushes towards us. They offer a relief or perhaps a counterpoint to the maddening senselessness of war, even if that war holds noble aims such as the freedom of a people against a brutal dictator ... This work, although stunning, is not without its flaws. Its editing could be tighter, and there were moments where I found myself disappointed in the rendering of Fatima as a character. She is often described only as crying, and at one point, even goes mute. While Khalifa’s creation of other female characters such as the fierce feminist force of Layla, is strong, I often found Fatima to be lacking in dimension ... [Khalifa] demonstrates immense courage and artistry in staying behind to make a map of the sky falling over Syria.
... death is so omnipresent in this novel that there is something tragicomic to the whole endeavour ... Leri Price, who has to date translated all of Khalifa’s books into English, retains the original’s sharpness and a pacy tone that recalls other Arab political novels ... despite its relentlessly bleak subject matter, Death Is Hard Work is intensely readable. As the pages turn, one is impelled to keep up with the al-Salim siblings as they race against time ... Although the ending feels slightly abrupt, this novel achieves a narrative cohesion perhaps not fully realised in Khalifa’s previous work ... Wryly compelling, despite the author’s pessimistic outlook, Death Is Hard Work may be Khalifa’s finest achievement yet, movingly conveying the fear, paranoia and hardships of life in an embattled police state.
Mr. Khalifa skillfully condenses the trip’s detours and delays into a breakneck narrative that seems unstoppably tilted toward tragedy ... The living have the wheel in this unforgettable book, but it’s the dead—and those doing everything in their power to join them—who give the directions.
Khalifa’s latest novel to be translated into English (fluidly, by Leri Price) certainly requires some stomach ... The mission – undertaken by Bolbol, his brother Hussein and sister Fatima – descends into frequent farce ... Death, in Khaled Khalifa’s telling, really is hard work.
Death Is Hard Work is a short book, but one learns more detail of the life of war than from a hundred newspaper and TV reports. By its end the pages smell of death ... The story is introverted like its characters. Yet at the same time it will produce extroverted thoughts among the readers. They will be transported out of their armchairs or subway seats—wherever they read—into a Syrian world that would be unfathomable without writing such as this. This book must be read. Not just because there is no other serious novel that has come out of the war but because it is a first-class piece of literature.
Many Western readers will find Khaled Khalifa’s new novel unbearably grim ... Death Is Hard Work moves in a way similar to the war it chronicles—mercilessly over the bones of its victims ... Frequently and without warning, the novel strays from the present-day narrative into the histories, dreams and frustrations of its central characters. The result is something at the intersection of Faulkner and Kafka, a modern-day As I Lay Dying passed through the lens of maddening bureaucracy, hypocrisy and slaughter. Readers looking for optimism or resolution need look elsewhere. Readers who want an unflinching account of one of recent history’s bloodiest civil wars will find in Khalifa’s latest work a story superficially colored by the many manifestations of death, but chiefly concerned with what a miraculous, Herculean thing it is to simply live.
... compellingly tackles the strain of responsibility felt by a man in war-torn Syria ... The narrative choice to summarize conversation indirectly, rather than placing the dialogue directly on the page, might distract some readers. Nonetheless, the novel is at times harrowing—the family flees wild dogs and faces masked guards—and serves as a reminder of the devastation of war and the power of integrity.