In Fiske’s debut novel, a young peasant woman fights to keep her family together and embarks on a journey of discovery and empowerment.
Nisrina Huniah’s childhood is filled with tragedy and hardship. Born in a remote Palestinian village called Beit el Jebel near the turn of the 20th century, Nisrina’s mother died in childbirth, leaving her father, Isa, a grieving widower. She grows up with a loving stepmother, but her emotionally distant father wants her to marry rather than attend school with her best friend, Lamia. Despite her misgivings, she finds happiness and contentment with her husband, Jabran Yusef, a kind man who works in his family’s orchards. Prior to the birth of Nisrina’s third child, however, her world is shattered when Jabran is kidnapped by Turkish soldiers and forced to serve in their army. With his fate uncertain, Nisrina is left with a difficult choice: leave her children with the Yusef family and marry another man, or find a way to support herself and her children alone. She decides to attend a Catholic university and become a midwife, and this decision marks a pivotal turning point in her life; afterward, she struggles to keep her children and establish an independent identity in a tradition-bound society, while also holding out hope her beloved husband will one day return. Fiske’s ambitious novel successfully weaves several subplots into a single, emotionally rich tapestry. Nisrina’s story, particularly her education as a midwife, serves as the heart of the novel, but Jabran’s experiences as a conscript in the Turkish army are just as dynamic. These two characters are surrounded by a well-developed cast of supporting players, including members of Jabran’s extended family and the nuns at the university. The setting also plays an important role in the lives and fates of Fiske’s characters (“[T]he change in seasons…signaled the start of the sacred olive harvest, a month long event that brought together the young and the old, the strong and the weak”), and the author does a fine job of depicting daily life in a Middle Eastern village.
A sweeping historical epic anchored by a compelling heroine, finely honed historical detail and a fully realized setting.