A woman lives as a man to escape oppression in her native Albania, but switching back after coming to the United States proves tricky.
As the novel opens, Mark has arrived in America shortly after 9/11, taken in by a cousin in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and ready to start fresh. Landing a job and improving his English are less crucial, though, than deciding how to resume life as a woman, Hana. In Albania, Hana was a literature student until her aunt died and she was forced to leave school to care for her ailing uncle. The uncle was insistent on arranging a marriage for her, and she resisted by opting to live as a man—a choice rooted in Albanian custom, as acclaimed novelist Ismail Kadare explains in the foreword. The switch is acceptable as long as Hana remains a virgin, and though the setup promisingly raises themes of national and sexual identity, the novel feels like a missed opportunity. Dones provides plenty of flashbacks to Hana’s early life in Albania, yet little time is spent on the 15 years she spent as a man and the tensions it created for her; a diary from that time is repeatedly mentioned but readers are denied a peek into it. Present-time difficulties are raised—spats with her cousin, going on dates, becoming comfortable with sex—but smoothly resolved, flouting the intensity of the struggle Hana says she’s endured. That’s disappointing, since early in the novel Dones smartly demonstrates how easily a woman’s standing in Albania can be diminished; Hana’s literary ambitions in particular were dismissed if not considered suspect. And Dones’ dialogue has plenty of casual wit, especially when Hana tries to explain her gender switch to her cousin’s young daughter. But the main drama feels curiously small for such a provocative theme.
Cleanly written and informed but worthy of a broader psychological canvas.