A Palestinian refugee and an American college student find love amid a clash of cultures during the first Gulf War.
Khalid and Irene meet in the mid-’80s at a UCLA protest rally calling for an end to apartheid. He has been a refugee since the age of eight, when an Israeli Defense Forces bombing killed his parents in the June ’67 Middle East War. Irene is an emotional exile who left her family’s smothering East Coast wealth to drift through the alien beauty of Southern California. A chance meeting with an older woman (who seems to be based on the late poet Kathy Acker) helps steer Irene away from minimum-wage jobs and dead-end friends toward college courses, political causes and eventually Khalid. The instant sexual heat Irene and Khalid experience forces them to start reckoning with long-buried feelings. Just as they begin to trust one another, Irene learns that Khalid is already married, albeit only for green-card purposes. Suddenly the ethnic differences that initially delighted the couple and added playful sparring to their passion begin to divide them. During the run-up to the first Gulf War, the geo-political machinations of the governments involved—especially, in Khalid’s eyes, the bullying arrogance of the United States—take on very personal implications . . . and throw the lovers’ future into doubt, recrimination and worse. Debut novelist Jensen, winner of the 2001 Raymond Carver Prize for Short Fiction, powerfully portrays Khalid’s boyhood amid the violence of the Middle East and the proud but complicated family that he either lost or left behind. Irene’s background, by contrast, is implied rather than realized, which dilutes the clarity of her character as an adult. Ultimately, the lesser story (boy-meets-girl) undermines the greater one (East meets West). But the tale is well crafted, with its scenes of high drama and great sex.
A first novel that offers a lot more than most.