Voices of the Lost , awarded the 2019 International prize for Arabic fiction, is the latest novel from the celebrated Lebanese writer Hoda Barakat. Translated by Marilyn Booth, the novel is constructed primarily of letters written by five migrants or asylum seekers from the Arab world, all of whom have departed or fled their unnamed countries. The five letters form a chain as each letter falls, by chance, into the hands of another migrant; one letter is salvaged from a trash can, another from the seat of an airplane. The finder is then moved to write their own letter, and thereby make sense of their present isolation ... Against this background of unnamed places and abstracted histories, Barakat attempts to create specificity – real human voices. The voices are often piercing; but at times, they are thin, as if imagined only up to the limit of what the narrative thematically requires. Movingly, they seem to address not their mothers or lovers or brothers, but God or some other omniscience ... The five letters are followed by a short section of counterpoints: brief glimpses into the lives of four intended recipients or acquaintances. Rather than letters, these snapshots take the form of internal monologues ... The recitations in Voices of the Lost are searing. Yet the construction of the novel – the device of found letters, the late addition of a heroic postman keeping a register of what cannot be delivered – creates an uneasy space where contrivance is an insistent part of the fabric.
[E]arly on, we’d settle for the novel to simply make some sense. This first letter—sections of which end mid-sentence—is not impenetrable, but can be maddeningly elliptical ... Someone writes a letter, another person writes a letter that explains how they found the previous one ... Gradually, it matters not at all how the writer of one letter came across the writer of the previous. Samuel Richardson may have wanted readers to believe Pamela existed. Barakat’s use of the epistolary instead underscores that a novel is always false; that’s part of the appeal. Thus liberated from pantomiming reality, the author is able to truly do something ... I can’t offer plot summary for a work so meandering, so interior; the story of people thinking about their lives. Even character remains elusive—Barakat’s cast feel convincingly real, but the enterprise has the quality of that sort of dream in which you sense the presence of someone you recognize even if you can’t quite see them. So you look for repetitions and choose to believe them themes ... It’s horrific, absurd, yet somehow quite right; the book’s gradual shift from the poetic to the violent is more plausible than I wanted it to be. Barakat is interested in the universals—violence, sex, family. The letter is, for her, not just a mechanism for telling a story, but a reminder that most stories remain unknown.
In the original Arabic, the prose of Hoda Barakat must glitter with sharply cut gems, carefully positioned, their corners drawing blood ... An astonishing passage, part revulsion and part sweetness⎯but like the first I cited, just one tool from the author’s kit. The metaphor is all about the intimate, but Barakat also works up vivifying new expressions for larger issues, with historical wallop ... This alone places the novel outside the norms, substituting a chain of coincidence for plot. Plots indeed emerge, in these openers, everything from amour fou to homicidal mania. The most gripping may be the third, the confession of a refugee Raskolnikov, and then his discarded text prompts one almost as hair-raising, featuring a sex worker and her kidnapped daughter. Yet while both dramas reach climax, like the other four, none quite get to denouement. They all break off, as I say, and then after the last of those letters, Voices of the Lost gets really strange ... Those in Part Two may no longer work through correspondence, but they remain part of a greater call and response. The counterpoint winds up more moving than hearing just the one melody. Significantly, too, the novel awards the final word to a postman. Another player from out of left field, the narrator of Part Three is left as nameless as everyone else, yet he embodies a stubborn hope.