The King of Jordan is turning 60! How better to celebrate the occasion than with his favorite pastime—fencing—and with his favorite sparring partner, Gabriel Hamdan, who must be enticed back from America, where he lives with his wife and his daughter, Amani. Amani, a divorced poet, jumps at the chance to accompany her father to his homeland for the King's birthday. Her father's past is a mystery to her—even more so since she found a poem on blue airmail paper slipped into one of his old Arabic books, written by his mother, a Palestinian refugee who arrived in Jordan during World War I. Her words hint at a long-kept family secret, carefully guarded by Uncle Hafez, an advisor to the King, who has quite personal reasons for inviting his brother to the birthday party. In a sibling rivalry that carries ancient echoes, the Hamdan brothers must face a reckoning, with themselves and with each other—one that almost costs Amani her life.
Behind its flashy premise full of swords and falconry, Fencing with the King enacts the deft footwork of a veteran novelist reinvigorating a timeless story of rivalry over inheritance with a dash of personal history ... To write fiction about the Palestinian diaspora involves finding ways to acknowledge the fragmentation of exile — usually in the novel’s form, its situation or its characters’ lives. In this case, that fragmentation is embodied by Hafez ... The reader hopes to see Amani discover and resist her uncle’s more nefarious ideas head-on, and the lack of this fuller reckoning is a palpable absence ... I have long admired Abu-Jaber’s craftsmanship ... Food is omnipresent in this story about a sumptuous month-long birthday celebration. Like an intricate recipe, her paragraphs balance interior and external worlds, elegant diction and workmanlike narrative. The effect is a texture of contrasts not unlike the exquisite food at the sheikh’s picnic ... The writing is propulsive — but silkily so, wending on limber paragraphs that allow Abu-Jaber to move with ease across a wide-ranging story that probes conflicted identities ... As Abu-Jaber leans further than ever into her Palestinian American roots to craft this subtle story with the resonance of folklore, she illuminates what has been outstanding about her craft all along.
Abu-Jaber, whose family’s story is reflected here, writes with a poet’s attention to language, and the novel beautifully evokes Jordan, from its modern cities and society parties to its ancient desert sites and Bedouin goatherds, all existing together under the whims of an autocratic kingdom and at a time (the mid-1990s) when peace in the Middle East seemed almost within reach. Fencing With the King is a complicated, character-driven and slow-burning mystery with a satisfying yet open-ended finale.