In a meandering, densely impressionist debut, a pair of Armenian-American Lebanese sisters experience the disintegration of personality in war-torn Beirut.
From a distance of several months in exile in New England, first-person narrator Marianna tentatively reconstructs the shattering events that finally force her family out of Beirut in the late ’80s. The family—gentle, professor father, who lived in America thirty years before; lovely, retreating mother, who is partly Armenian; glum older sister, Alaine, who collects shrapnel and grenades in her “bullet collection”; and quietly inquisitive, blond-haired Marianna—intended to leave by 1976, after the first bombs begin to fall around their apartment house. Yet they stayed to witness bloodshed by succeeding foreign armies of Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, French, and American troops, in a bizarre suspension of real life when the girls must still attend school, meals must be prepared, and the semblance of social life maintained. In gossamer spirals of nostalgia, Ward gradually fills in her portrait of the family’s bizarre life of violence. There’s numbed denial as teenaged Alaine embarks on a death-defying pattern of running away and self-mutilation, while Marianna, in copy-cat retaliation, skips school and attempts repeated overdoses—unable to resist “the drug of dying.” Definitive events include the shady killing of Marianna’s dreamy handsome cousin and first crush, Ziad; her befriending of a French soldier, Paul, hideously wounded in the bloody aftermath of the American embassy bombing; and the inexplicable kidnapping and shooting of Uncle Bernie. Ward orders her circuitous tale only by seasons, backtracking years behind, then fast-forwarding to the family’s sad, listless exile in America in what is perhaps an imitation of the erratic workings of childhood memory. Yet the reader is frequently befuddled by shifting time and distance, overloaded by layers of frequently repetitive description, and unable to penetrate Marianna’s adolescent veils of justification to feel true compassion for these characters.
Still, a near-mesmerizing vision of a complex and vanished past.