Chamberlin (Gloria, 2005, etc.) breathes life into the ancient Arabic world in this epic historical novel of one girl’s tumultuous search to discover her past.
One scorching summer day, 12-year-old, blue-eyed Rayah participates in a rousing water fight with her aunts and cousins at their home in the desert oasis of Tadmor. When her small cousin, Bushra, slips and lands head first on the mosaic floor, all believe her dead. Rayah prays over the body, and something miraculous happens; underneath her hand, the skull fragments of Bushra’s head fuse and life suddenly fills the toddler’s body. For Rayah, this new, unknown power only fuels her desperation to uncover the truth of her ancestry. She finds unwelcome answers from Sitt Sameh, the woman with the same blue eyes as Rayah, who lives in the harem, yet has no family connection. Sitt Sameh confirms what Rayah doesn’t want to hear: she is Rayah’s mother and carrier of a dangerous secret. But it’s the arrival of a eunuch scribe that demolishes the sanctity of Rayah’s world. His master is Khalid ibn al-Wal?d, the Sword of God. This mighty conqueror is Sitt Sameh’s father and Rayah’s grandfather. The scribe begins reading Khalid’s memoirs, and as Sitt Sameh fills in the details, Rayah learns the astonishing story of her sacred lineage, of blue-eyed women who rode into battle, of the men who loved them, and of the jinn, beings of fire and smoke who helped them. Readers should be prepared to immerse themselves so completely into the ancient Middle East, with its exotic spices, silken veils and hot, desert sands, that leaving it is akin to reemerging into the modern world like Rip Van Winkle. Chamberlin beautifully captures the depth of Rayah’s awakening to her heritage, both emotionally and spiritually, and deftly intertwines the narratives of her mother and grandmother to create a multigenerational saga of love, betrayal, faith and legacy.
Impeccable research and haunting, poetic language create a lush tale to be lingered over and savored.