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by Benjamin Buchholz

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-13377-7
Publisher: Back Bay/Little, Brown

Buchholz’s debut fiction combines an eye-level view of war-ravaged Iraq with a story that centers around lost relationships, longing and regret.

Abu Saheeh works at his small mobile-phone sales shop in an Iraqi village near the border of Kuwait. Situated under a bridge guarded by a single inept soldier, Abu Saheeh’s business grants him a prime vantage point from which to watch the daily convoys of American soldiers and trucks laden with supplies that roll through the outskirts of Safwan. It is to this little shop that a street urchin named Layla, with her odd blue eyes, comes each day to visit with the merchant. Charming Layla chatters about American movie stars and culture, and challenges Abu Saheeh to reach back into his dark and deadly past and relive moments he would prefer to forget. Also in Safwan is his old friend, Bashar, with whom he spent many years in Chicago, both sent there to study medicine by the Iraqi government. Bashar, who owns the small restaurant where Abu Saheeh takes his evening meal, represents a past that slips into Abu Saheeh’s restless and nightmarish dreams night after night. As he courts a wealthy widow, the phone salesman also collaborates with a prominent local resident on a mysterious mission. Buchholz, who now resides in Oman with his family, clearly has an eye for detail; the book boils with observations on the culture and daily life of the residents of Safwan and Baghdad. The author is an astute observer, turning sights, sounds and smells into eloquent snips of the lives of a people who have sustained great loss and devastation. Buchholz’s prose is vivid, perhaps too vivid for some because he neglects no detail of the carnage that characterizes Iraq’s current history and recent past. But the narrative that starts out so clear and compelling fades and dips in the last part of the book, leaving the reader both moved and confused at the same time.

An uneven story with the ring of authenticity that becomes progressively difficult to follow.