Arab writer al-Shaykh (Women of Sand and Myrrh, 1992) details a cool, almost clinical journey to the heart of a young woman imprisoned within herself by family deceit--and liberated finally amidst the violence of war-torn Beirut. The story this time--reflecting the author's feminist sympathies, as well as her preoccupation with the contemporary Arab world--concerns Lebanese Zahra, who as a child had been used as cover for her mother's liaisons with another man. After a severe beating from her brutal father, who suspects Zahra's role in his wife's deceit, the formerly bright student retreats into herself, obsessively scratches her pimple-laden face, and embarks on a meaningless affair with a married man. She has two abortions and a nervous breakdown before her family sends her off to West Africa, where an uncle once active in Lebanese politics now lives in exile. The homesick uncle is delighted to see her, but Zahra, frightened by the intensity of his attentions, hides out in the bathroom (``the only thing I have loved in Africa'') and in desperation accepts the marriage proposal of a local Lebanese man. The marriage is a disaster: Zahra becomes even more withdrawn, then returns to a Beirut devastated by war. As the war intensifies, her parents move to their native village, and Zahra, struggling to survive, falls in love for the first time. But her lover is almost certainly the lone sniper--``the only god of death, the only threat in their locality''--who shoots innocent passersby from a nearby apartment roof. As the two make love, little is said, and for the first time Zahra wants a normal life. But it's too late, as she--left only with ``promise of menace''--becomes a victim of the city's mindless violence, personified by the sniper. A powerfully haunting portrait of innocence destroyed by violence both at home and in the larger world. More than just a novel about the contemporary Middle East.