#10 (2020) A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum

I was lured towards A Woman is No Man in Hodges Figgis at the start of the year thanks to its bright cover and striking title. The feminist in me got all prickly and I was interested to see what it was all about.

Palestine, 1990. Seventeen-year-old Isra prefers reading books to entertaining the suitors her father has chosen for her. Over the course of a week, the naïve and dreamy girl finds herself quickly betrothed and married, and is soon living in Brooklyn. There Isra struggles to adapt to the expectations of her oppressive mother-in-law Fareeda and strange new husband Adam, a pressure that intensifies as she begins to have children – four daughters instead of the sons Fareeda tells Isra she must bear.

Brooklyn, 2008. Eighteen-year-old Deya, Isra’s oldest daughter, must meet with potential husbands at her grandmother Fareeda’s insistence, though her only desire is to go to college. But her grandmother is firm on the matter: the only way to secure a worthy future for Deya is through marriage to the right man.

But fate has a will of its own, and soon Deya will find herself on an unexpected path that leads her to shocking truths about her family…

As the blurb suggests, the narrative is split between Isra and her daughter Deya, with occasional chapters from Fareeda. Rum’s novel deals with the realities of arranged marriage, from the lining up of potential suitors to the union that follows. The three generation perspective allows for a range of viewpoints to come through; Fareeda’s thoughts about a woman’s role are far more conventional to those of Deya, for example, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. However, all three women are linked by an overarching sense of duty and expectation reinforced by their culture. Isra and Deya in particular find small ways to push against these expectations, and each feel constricted by their seemingly predestined path.

She wished she could open her mouth and tell her parents, No! This isn’t the life I want. But Isra had learned from a very young age that obedience was the single path to love. So she only defied in secret, mostly with her books. Every evening after returning from school, after she’d soaked a pot of rice and hung her brothers’ clothes and set the sufra and washed the dishes following dinner, Isra would retreat quietly to her room and read under the open window… (Pg. 6-7)

The novel wasn’t the easiest read. The subject matter is tough going and there’s an overarching sense of powerlessness that pervades the book and that made me feel angry for the protagonists. I found the way the women were treated difficult to deal with and I was crying out for an all-out rebellion. The similarities between the characters’ lives made me worry that history was going to repeat itself, ad infinitum. However, it also provided me with greater insight into the culture, which I previously knew relatively little about.

I think this is an important read to raise awareness, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter, but perhaps not one that you should start if your mood is a little low, or there’s a coronavirus pandemic tearing through the world.

#8 (2020) Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I picked up a copy of Lost Children Archive while I was back home, as I’d been belatedly Christmas-gifted Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Horse, The Fox and The Mole and already had a copy. It was one of those impulse purchases as part of a buy one get one half price offer, and I’m hugely glad that I followed the urge!

(Sidebar: if you haven’t already read Mackesy’s The Boy, please go and do so. It is tremendously beautiful and full of important sentiments about being kind to yourself and others.)

A family in New York packs the car and sets out on a road trip. This will be the last journey they ever take together.

In Central America and Mexico, thousands of children are on a journey of their own, travelling north to the US border. Not all of them will make it there.

The book is made up of four parts, primarily narrated by the mother in the family. None of the characters are named, which always intrigues me as a reader and and impresses me as a writer. Later in the book, another narrator takes over, and there are also sections of prose taken from a fictional book entitled Elegies for Lost Children. This volume details the migration story of seven children and becomes central to the narrative of Lost Children Archive.

The family comprises of a mother, father, and two children of 10 and 5. One of the most interesting facets of this outwardly ordinary set-up is the professions of the parents. One is a documentarian, the other a documentarist, and both are fundamentally interested in building soundscapes in order to tell a story. The narrative of the book explores their individual story-telling ambitions and how they intersect and diverge. The following extract is taken from early in the book.

My husband and I met four years ago, recording a soundscape of New York City. We were part of a large team of people working for New York University’s Centre for Urban Science and Progress. The soundscape was meant to same and collect all the keynotes and sound marks that were emblematic of the city. (Pg. 2)

One of the key themes Luiselli explores is the migrant crisis. She considers this from a US perspective and specifically focuses on the impact that this has on children, and on the parents of those children. Luiselli writes beautifully throughout, shifting the focus from small details, such as the routines of daily life and the feelings of the narrator, to the bigger picture. Her descriptions of the two children — seemingly eternally in the backseat of the car — are particularly vivid and enjoyable to read.

Then, quite suddenly, she tires of being in the world, becomes quiet, looks out of the window, and says nothing. Perhaps it is in those stretched-out moments in which they meet the world in silence that our children begin to grow apart from us and slowly become unfathomable. Don’t stop being a little girl, I think, but don’t say it. She looks out of the window and yawns. I don’t know what she’s thinking, what she knows and doesn’t know. I don’t know if she sees the same world that we see. (Pg. 139-40)

I love that last line. Children don’t, in my experience, see the world in the same way as adults. They see it through the protective haze of childhood, innocent and buzzing with curiosity. Impossible things are feasible. Their view is coloured by imaginative introspection and is arguably all the richer for it. But, as Luiselli’s novel artfully conveys, not all children have that experience. Not all children have the luxury of that innocence, protection, and care. Not all children get time to be children, which is a particularly devastating truth.

This little snippet review doesn’t do the book justice, but I hope I’ve offered a small insight into why its well worth a read. I think it would appeal to travellers, researchers, and to anyone with a desire to know more about migration. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

P.S. There’s a nice article and interview with Luiselli available here, but be mindful that it’s full of spoilers!