Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2020

Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa

Against the Loveless World is exactly the kind of thought-provoking novel that I like…

A novel narrated by a Palestinian woman detained on terrorism charges… in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison for 17 years… is a novel almost guaranteed to be thought-provoking because it raises all the confronting issues that have bedevilled the Middle East for so long.

This is the blurb:

Nahr has been confined to the Cube: nine square metres of glossy grey cinderblock, devoid of time, its patterns of light and dark nothing to do with day and night. Journalists visit her, but get nowhere; because Nahr is not going to share her story with them.

The world outside calls Nahr a terrorist, and a whore; some might call her a revolutionary, or a hero. But the truth is, Nahr has always been many things, and had many names.

She was a girl who learned, early and painfully, that when you are a second class citizen love is a kind of desperation; she learned, above all else, to survive.

She was a girl who went to Palestine in the wrong shoes, and without looking for it found what she had always lacked in the basement of a battered beauty parlour: purpose, politics, friends. She found a dark-eyed man called Bilal, who taught her to resist; who tried to save her when it was already too late.

Nahr sits in the Cube, and tells her story to Bilal. Bilal, who isn’t there; Bilal, who may not even be alive, but who is her only reason to get out.

Susan Abulhawa (author of Mornings in Jenin) personalises this political story with a mother-daughter relationship, an examination of women’s role in a patriarchal society and a tentative love story.  Nahr’s Palestinian mother and grandmother are ‘experienced refugees’ who cope with expulsion from Kuwait when the Americans liberate it from Iraq.  For Nahr who had embraced Kuwait as the only home she’d known, displacement came as a shock. The realities of her Palestinian identity transform her from a rather shallow young woman into an activist, and then more than that.

Within the cell she has endless time for thinking, and she reflects on the choices she made: a naïve marriage made partly to upstage her best friend in status; friendship with a man-hating brothel-keeper; risk-taking behaviour with men and a tarnished reputation.  But she also became provider for the family; enabled her brother to have choices that she never had; and learned to use discretion which turned out to be a very useful skill indeed.   She mulls over her angst-ridden relationship with her mother and grandmother, but comes to respect both of them.

Over the course of the book, Nahr’s abusive and conflicted relationships become a metaphor for the Arab-Israeli conflict: she has no choice but to deal with oppression, hypocrisy, occupation, exploitation, an inequitable legal and social system and the undervaluing of Palestinian traditions.  She copes by rejecting conformity: the only way to tilt the scales a little is to behave in a way that ‘respectable’ women do not, because ‘respectability’ gets her nowhere.

Book groups, I suspect, will inevitably discuss the extent to which the human story of Nahr is a vehicle to tell the Palestinian story.   Mornings In Jenin, which I reviewed here, was IMO an uneven book which never really transcended its didactic purpose in cataloguing wrongs perpetrated against the Palestine people.  Against a Loveless World is a more sophisticated novel: there are scenes of great beauty which depict Palestinian communities managing to sustain traditional practices such as the olive harvest; there’s a variety of characters who range from a witty old grandmother who has underwear that’s older than the Zionist entity to girls preoccupied with hair and nails along with Nahr’s mother who crafts exquisite traditional embroidery for wedding apparel.  The plot is well-crafted so that scenes in the cell interrupt the chronological narrative as a persistent reminder that this conflict has been going on for decades.  And there are moments of high drama when Nahr and those she loves are caught up in state-sanctioned violence as well as their own resistance activities.

Abulhawa is a writer of the Palestinian diaspora who lives in the US, and the central character of this novel is complicit in acts of violence against those contentious Jewish settlements.  There is no attempt to provide balance: it is written entirely from a Palestinian point-of-view which supports violent resistance.  (There are other Palestinian points-of-view.) Nevertheless Against the Loveless World resists easy judgements about Nahr and all that she symbolises because the situation is so fraught, and so complex that it has thus far defeated any and all attempts at resolution time after time.  How readers feel about that will influence reactions to the novel, I think…

Author: Susan Abulhawa
Title: Against the Loveless World
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
ISBN: 9781526618801, pbk., 366 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury


Responses

  1. Added to my TBR: thank you. I like the sound of what you’ve said about the longer arc, the chronological story, being interrupted by daily scenes in the cell. Lately I’m particularly enjoying stories whose structures mirror the theme of the broader work.

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    • Well, it’s often true that a first novel is a case of an author things off her chest, full of passion and angst but not always as well controlled as it should be. (This, IMO, is why wise publishers nurture their writers with good editing from the beginning.)
      The central character is a bit overloaded with tragedy in her life, but that’s the situation for many people in reality too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that line, “She was a girl who went to Palestine in the wrong shoes.” It’s the kind of line that gets my imagination working, thinking about what it could mean, and it makes me want to know more about the character. It sounds like a very rich and fascinating novel—you’ve made me want to give it a try. The author’s name sounds familiar, as does Mornings in Jenin, but I don’t think I ever read it. Maybe I’m just remembering people talking about the book—I think it was quite a hit at the time. Good to hear that you found this one better.

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    • Hi Andrew, I think you’re right. MIJ made quite a splash because there’s very little of Palestinian writing around… not much from the Middle East in general, actually. I don’t think that’s just translation issues…
      Abulhawa writes in English, from the US, and with a western audience in mind, so I think that advocacy is part of the story.

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  3. Straight onto my list! Thank you, Lisa :-)

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    • No, thank the good folks at Bloomsbury who sent it to me… otherwise I don’t think I would have heard of it.

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  4. Mine too as there is a dearth of writing from that diaspora it seems. Just read a novel Death Is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa a Syrian writer of distinction. Once again shows how fiction is such a powerful vehicle to tell ‘truths’ that are unpalatable. Thanks as always.

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    • That was such a good book: such black humour in the service of serious truth…

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  5. […] in western literature is that of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation.  I’ve just read and reviewed Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa. It’s disconcerting, to put it mildly, to read a […]

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  6. I think we need more books that confront us with challenging characters and challenging ideas, that encourage us to resist simplistic responses to complex problems. It is very hard to accept violence as a response to a problem but … we need to understand why people can be driven to it, and to wonder whether it is indeed ever justified.

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    • Yes, that’s how I feel, uneasy about it, but willing to listen to the PoV.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I have two copies of this, sent to me for review. A proof and a finished. Looking forward to it.

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  8. […] Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa […]

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