ABSENT by Betool Khedairi

ABSENT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An intimate picture of life in a Baghdad apartment building during the perilous 1990s (following the Gulf War) is gradually assembled in this colorful novel, originally published by a university press in 2004.

Iraqi-Scottish author (A Sky So Close, 2001) and now Jordanian resident Khedairi presents her story as the arduous “education” of its narrator Dalal, a young woman raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents are killed by an exploding landmine. It’s a compact saga of struggling to survive despite ongoing sectarian enmity and violence and a ruinous economic blockade. Attention focuses first on Dalal’s childless Aunt Umm, a frequently choleric seamstress, and her Uncle Abu Ghayeb. The latter is a memorable comic character: a failed artist who surrounds himself with treasured oil paintings and reels from one impractical moneymaking scheme to another, eventually choosing to prosper as a beekeeper. Neighboring characters, all of whom lament the long-ago “Days of Plenty,” include sagacious fortune teller Umm Mazin (who “reads” dregs in coffee cups, and counsels distraught women who have lost their husbands’ love); gentle diabetic Uncle Sami, going blind because of the difficulty of procuring insulin; and their building’s secretive new owner Saad, who supervises Dalal’s pursuit of formal education, and in effect facilitates the loss of her innocence. Images of looming threats (notably, the sight of children playing with “leftover shrapnel” in the street) aside, the novel is primarily pictorial and virtually devoid of tension or plot until its closing pages, in which the presence of an informer in the building occasions a violent flurry of transformative events. Khedairi makes brilliant metaphoric use of a “war” among Uncle Abu’s bees, begun because “I must have distributed the food unequally amongst the different colonies.”

Initially sluggish, but not without rewards.

Pub Date: July 17th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7742-4
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2007