War-ravaged Lebanon, seen through the eyes of a brave, wise child.
Debut novelist Abi-Ezzi, who moved to London in 1983, gives readers the outlines of her homeland’s major conflicts, but she focuses on the intimate wars inside the narrator’s tiny clan. The book concerns eight-year-old Ruba and her family. Maronite Christians, they seek safety for her older brother, already drawn to guns, and for Papi (father), paralyzed by a mysterious trauma. He returned to their village one day from Beirut as a zombie, closed his shop and retreated; now he rarely speaks except to rage at the Palestinians. At Ruba’s birthday party, he frightens her girlfriends and barks at Mami (mother). Even his successful, ever-upbeat brother, who drives a Mercedes so beautiful it makes Mami cry, can’t rouse him, but circumstances and his daughter do. As Israeli troops mount an offensive, Ruba calls upon Papi’s dormant courage and, ultimately, frees him. At the end, “no longer a cactus standing motionless in a pot full of dry cracked earth,” he has reclaimed his life, his dignity and his family’s respect. In order to enact this emancipation, however, Ruba first must exhume the secrets of Papi’s painful past. In lean, lyrical prose, the author juxtaposes scenes of everyday pleasure (eating sugared almonds, hunting snails) with surrealist horrors (playing in a forest, Ruba comes upon a glass eyeball) to depict coming of age in the line of fire.
Part folk tale, part reportage, this moving portrait achieves a dark poetry.