Love and war connect characters in the U.S. and Middle East in this family saga from Murphy (Christodora, 2016).
Though this finely tuned, well-researched novel covers nearly a century, its core is the post–9/11 Iraq War, the divisions that created its senseless agonies, and the cultural similarities that might ameliorate them. Central to the story is Bostonian Rita Khoury, the daughter of a doctor of Christian Lebanese descent and a mother from Irish stock; to better relate to her father, she studies Arabic in high school and college, rising to become a reporter in Iraq just as the war begins in 2003. Assisting her with dialect and the finer points of Iraqi life is Nabil, who earns decent pay from the paper (a barely veiled stand-in for the New York Times) but risks becoming a target for assisting Americans. (He also harbors a life-endangering secret central to the novel’s final acts.) From the book’s punning title on down, Murphy traces echoes across cultures, how each character is more of a mixture of heritages than simplified media coverage shows, and how Rita and Nabil (and their extended families) are both empowered and complicated by their histories. Murphy’s delivery of this point isn’t glib or simplistic, and the novel is infused with the complexities of Arabic language and culture; well-turned depictions of life in Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut; and scenes capturing the anxiety and drudgery of war reporting. (Only a paranoid American bigot, introduced late in the book, feels relatively flimsy.) For all its wealth of detail, the novel is propulsive and engrossing and rooted in the simplest of storytelling points: Empathy can erase prejudice. From Rita and Nabil’s friendship to the family relationships that unwittingly shaped their lives, Murphy delivers a fresh, affecting restatement of that time-honored message.
A surprisingly moving war novel alert to global violence and politics but thriving on the character level.