TW: Both this review and the book mention trauma and violence.
Book hangover. Ever hear that term? I’d come across it again and again, but never grasped the entirety of its meaning.
But then I read Against the Loveless World, and it made sense. The moment I closed the book, I longed for more. More of this world to which I’d become so attached. More of these complex characters and the unwavering hope that propelled them through the story.
Susan Abulhawa tells the gripping story of Nahr, a Palestinian woman who spends her days in solitary confinement. The story shifts from present to past, as Nahr tells of her early years in Kuwait. She dreams of opening a beauty salon and feels as if her life is on the right track when she marries a respectable bachelor.
However, they separate soon after and she finds herself on the path of prostitution. It’s the only way to support her poverty-stricken family and to ensure that her brilliant younger brother can go to medical school. Nahr is blindsided yet again when Iraq invades Kuwait, and her family is forced to resettle in Jordan. Her identity remains unstable, as she feels that a sense of home has always hovered beyond her grasp.
Her fate eventually leads her into Palestine, where a sense of belonging unfolds. A new unexpected lover — a man tied to her past, but whom she’d never met — enters her life. And all seems well, despite the threats of the Israeli occupation that loom in the background on a day-to-day basis.
Nahr feels more joy than she ever has, and she is able to detach from the traumas of her earlier years — from losing her father, to her first husband leaving her, and all of the wounds in between.
Tensions heighten as Nahr tells the tale from her minuscule jail cell, deemed The Cube, leading us back to the present. Many questions remain unanswered. Did her lover survive? Where is her family? What will life be like once she is freed, if that is ever a possibility? Susan Abulhawa depicts the story so vividly and with a keen focus on detail, that a fine line exists between reality and the words on the page.
I first came across this book on Bookstagram and was drawn to its subject matter. Although tensions in Palestine have heightened in the last few months, I’ll admit I still felt disconnected from it all. There was a desire to know more, yet some of the information out there seemed faulty or unreliable.
News outlets and information on social media can be skewed a certain way, and only capture part of what’s going on. Additionally, history and social studies texts spew out facts, names, and dates, but lack the ability to cultivate an emotional connection.
Though this book was by no means an all-encompassing education on the conflict, it provides an example of what life for many has been like for decades. For one thing, the author uses the lived experiences of actual Palestinians to tell the tale.
Poverty, resettlement, and violence underlie the lives of so many in this region of the world. So by using Nahr to highlight the harsh realities, the author made it easier to connect with what was going on and gain a deeper understanding of the situation.
The style of writing was also captivating. Abulhawa’s eloquence lends an ease to the reading experience as if floating through the stanzas of a poem. Her spiritual and long-standing connection to her roots is evident, as she includes words in her native Arabic throughout the story (with a translation guide in the front of the book).
I love when authors do this, as it allows the reader to get a glimpse of the culture — whether it’s food, terms of endearment, or major holidays.
Additionally, I admired Abulhawa’s talent for characterization. Sometimes a story with a promising plot gets dulled by characters who seem flat or inconsistent. That was not the case with Against the Loveless World. Abulhawa strikes a balance between painting a portrait of each character while leaving enough to the reader’s imagination.
And through realistic dialogue, unique physical attributes, and complex internal states, we feel invested in each character as if we were with them ourselves.
I think this book offers valuable insight into very real experiences occurring throughout the world. Reading is a beautiful way through which we can step out of the bubble of what we perceive to be true or normal. And we’re allowed to see that there are so many realities out there.
Some are stagnant and predictable, while others are a roller coaster of unimaginable hardship and strife. It’s a pleasant reminder of the full spectrum of the human experience, with love and joy on one end, hatred, and pain on the other. Abulhawa shows us that in order to fully revel in and appreciate the former, we often have to face the latter.
We’re left with the truth of a universal need for love and belonging. And how, despite its apparent ease, it’s something many of us spend our lives chasing, often without success. But it’s this love — or a yearning for it — that can keep us going, even in the bleakest circumstances.
While the book hangover will fade, I know my desire to read more of Abulhawa’s work will not. She’s just one of those authors who seems self-assured and full of wisdom. Her acclaimed Mornings in Jenin is on my list, and I have a feeling it’ll be just as alluring as this book.
If you’re looking for a novel that feels like peering into a literary kaleidoscope, look no further than this one. But be warned, the book hangover will hit you!
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