Humaydan’s newest novel is an engaging, if sometimes-clunky, portrait of life in one battered corner of the Middle East.

THE WEIGHT OF PARADISE

A suitcase found in an old Beirut building changes one woman’s understanding of her city, her life, and the world at large.

The fourth novel by Humaydan (B as in Beirut, 2007, etc.) alternates between the war-ridden Beirut of the late 1970s and the same city some 20 years later, now beset by reconstruction crews. As in her earlier works, Humaydan is concerned here with the lives of women: their losses, struggles, and victories. She interweaves the stories of a few women separated by time and circumstance. She begins with Maya, a writer and maker of documentary films, who has recently moved back to Beirut after years spent in Paris. In the midst of researching a film about Beirut’s ongoing reconstruction, Maya comes across a suitcase hidden in an old, abandoned, bombed-out house. Inside the suitcase she discovers the diaries of a woman named Noura Abu Sawwan, a journalist who apparently died in a car bombing in 1978. Tucked in with the diaries are letters from Noura’s lover, Kemal, as well as photographs and other documents. Maya becomes obsessed with the cache, piecing together Noura’s story by way of the various documents. She even finds one of Noura’s old friends, Sabah, still living in Beirut, and goes to interview her. Through these three women, Humaydan is able to present a kind of mosaic of women’s lives in Beirut as well as in Damascus and a small Turkish village from which Noura and Sabah emigrated. She shows the various degrees to which these women have and have not escaped oppression. Her portraits are sensitive and frequently moving. Unfortunately, Humaydan can also be heavy-handed, prolix when her meaning was already implicit. Her handling of the narrative is sometimes-clumsy, with chapters that seem to lurch open and closed. A little more finesse, or at least fine-toothed editing, could have improved the pacing of the prose. The end is rushed. Still, Humaydan writes incisively about her characters and their fears, frustrations, and, most importantly, their hopes.

Humaydan’s newest novel is an engaging, if sometimes-clunky, portrait of life in one battered corner of the Middle East.

Pub Date: Nov. 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-56656-055-9

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Interlink

Review Posted Online: Sept. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

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MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION

A young New York woman figures there’s nothing wrong with existence that a fistful of prescriptions and months of napping wouldn’t fix.

Moshfegh’s prickly fourth book (Homesick for Another World, 2017, etc.) is narrated by an unnamed woman who’s decided to spend a year “hibernating.” She has a few conventional grief issues. (Her parents are both dead, and they’re much on her mind.) And if she’s not mentally ill, she’s certainly severely maladjusted socially. (She quits her job at an art gallery in obnoxious, scatological fashion.) But Moshfegh isn’t interested in grief or mental illness per se. Instead, she means to explore whether there are paths to living that don’t involve traditional (and wearying) habits of consumption, production, and relationships. To highlight that point, most of the people in the narrator's life are offbeat or provisional figures: Reva, her well-meaning but shallow former classmate; Trevor, a boyfriend who only pursues her when he’s on the rebound; and Dr. Tuttle, a wildly incompetent doctor who freely gives random pill samples and presses one drug, Infermiterol, that produces three-day blackouts. None of which is the stuff of comedy. But Moshfegh has a keen sense of everyday absurdities, a deadpan delivery, and such a well-honed sense of irony that the narrator’s predicament never feels tragic; this may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author. (Recovering from one blackout, the narrator thinks, “What had I done? Spent a spa day then gone out clubbing?...Had Reva convinced me to go ‘enjoy myself’ or something just as idiotic?”) Checking out of society the way the narrator does isn’t advisable, but there’s still a peculiar kind of uplift to the story in how it urges second-guessing the nature of our attachments while revealing how hard it is to break them.

A nervy modern-day rebellion tale that isn’t afraid to get dark or find humor in the darkness.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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