More and more it seems that newspaper articles are available online only through paid archives, so if you want to see my international novel review roundup in the Chicago Tribune you’ve got to view it soon. Click on the title of this post to be transported there, or on the link at right under Recent Writing.

It came out today, Sunday 2/25, and features a look at “Skylark Farm” by Antonia Arslan, “Measuring Time: A Novel” by Helon Habila, “Saraya: The Ogre’s Daughter: a Palestinian Fairy Tale” by Emily Habiby, “Secondhand World” by Katherine Min, and Leila Aboulela’s “The Translator.”

ADDITION: Since it is now no longer available online, I’ve included the roundup here.

Stories rooted in family and foreign lands
Reviewed By Christine Thomas
Published in the
Chicago Tribune 2/25/07

Skylark Farm
By Antonia Arslan
Translated by Geoffrey Brock
KNOPF; 273 pages; $23.95

Given the current discord between nations and ideologies, Antonia Arslan’s resurrection of the 1914 Armenian genocide in her debut novel “Skylark Farm,” is both pertinent and provocative. Through re-imagining her ancestors’ history, Arslan lyrically explores the alarming swiftness with which one can become disposable and disposed.

The opening thwarts clarity with an avalanche of people and details, the prose mired in flashbacks, sprinkled with italicized revelations of the future; yet this inundation is successful in engendering necessary compassion for Sempad’s large family in Constantinople. For when Italy’s declaration of war and Turkey’s appalling quest for modernization prevent a reunion with Sempad’s brother’s family, the novel turns to the graphic details of the extermination.
By the end of part one, the book gains not only perspicuity but also gripping momentum as the story moves chronologically. The impending rescue of Sempad’s surviving family members becomes a “little breeze of optimism” that keeps the pages swiftly moving. But it’s Arslan’s precise, vibrant description and sumptuous language that animate every facet of this world touched by death and terror.

Her compassionate exploration of human frailty, and how middling decisions progress to facilitate atrocity, is a finely wrought elegy of her family’s survival and a timely recognition that our own may likewise be “an accident, a clever ruse, a test of strength, a mocking game of dice with death at stake.”

Measuring Time: A Novel
By Helon Habila
WW NORTON; 383 pages; $13.95

It’s difficult to esteem a young boy whose first conscious priority is “HATE THY FATHER, MAKE HIM PAY,” even if the philanderer deserves it. When Mamo and his twin brother LaMamo’s next concern becomes “CHEAT DEATH, BE FAMOUS,” Helon Habila’s protagonists appear distressingly calculating but hopelessly immature. Yet when they poison a neighbor’s dog simply for his rheum, they prove heartless and wicked, and from then on in “Measuring Time,” it’s difficult to care what happens to them.

The twins bookend Habila’s second novel, but the narrative centers on Mamo, who inherits his dead mother’s sickle cell anemia and can’t leave Nigeria with LaMamo to become a soldier. Thus LaMamo appears primarily through lengthy, italicized epistles devoted to improbable ponderings about the nature of war, whereas Mamo remains in Keti doing little to pursue his enduring fascination with fame.

Instead he’s disconnected from emotion and others—even later from his rediscovered childhood crush, Zara. As an adult he sets himself apart from his teaching colleagues and only reluctantly becomes a history writer. He eventually earns a job as a biographer, a diversion Habila uses to pointedly explore of Nigeria’s struggle with tradition and modernity.

Habila conjures a remarkably peopled landscape, and his ambitious concoction of such a large scope of stories is impressive; but though this composition has potential, the events are laid out with little artistry, characters’ inner selves masked by technical and archaic diction. It’s as if, as young Mamo discovers after scripting the village’s verbally improvised play, once this world was committed to paper “the raw, unpremeditated vitality [went] out of the performance.”

Saraya: The Ogre’s Daughter: a Palestinian Fairy Tale
By Emile Habiby
Translated by Peter Theroux
IBIS; 210 pages; $16.95

Childhood stories frame our first understanding of the world, and Emile Habiby’s posthumously published Palestinian fairytale, “Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter,” is an earnest homage to the ways imagination, proverbs and legends help us discern the truth, even as adults.

The Palestinian term for fairytale describes “anything that amazes,” and Habiby does so by dexterously enmeshing one story with another, spinning a scant plot with indistinguishable borders, similar to his grandmother’s contradictory tales, “where one story led to another, without the first having come to an end.” The reader must surrender to its liberated form, constructed as an initially perplexing, thinly veiled fictional conversation between Habiby and his alter ego.

He revisits a life inspired by story characters and objects of ancestral mystery like his uncle’s three-ringed walking stick. Attempting to discover the secret truth, he wanders roads of memory, “cross-examine[s]” his childhood haunts, and metaphorically “implored them to let down one of their braids,” so he can climb from darkness to understanding. The narrative is fiercely original at the same time it’s an importunate reinvention, breathing life into the past to see what remains possible.

There is no choice but to join his quest for an ending—to his life, the book, and the protracted Israeli/Palestinian conflict—and decide for oneself the contemporary identities of Saraya and the Ogre in this parable of a life set to the music of bombs.

Secondhand World
By Katherine Min
KNOPF; 277 pages; $23

The precocious narrator of Katherine Min’s novel “Secondhand World,” appears to divulge all when Isa immediately declares herself an eighteen-year-old orphan recovering from burns suffered during a fire that killed her parents. But she then rewinds time and, through bite-sized chapters that nonetheless achieve fluid momentum, unveils a tale that isn’t quite what it seems.

Isa is rigidly portrayed as separate and admits feeling, “in some permanent, unconditional way, alone.” She’s the only Korean in her school; the only girl in her family; after the death of her four-year-old brother, the only child; and upon her parents’ deaths, the only one left behind. Min heightens her detachment by relying on the ultra-conservative Korean parent stereotype, against which Isa revolts even as she admits her father wasn’t worried about his ancestral line, the signal component of Korean traditionalism.

In reality, her parents embrace American life and are lenient with Isa, if also distant and self-centered; her rebellions, which comprise the majority of the plot, derive more from the contextual 1960s setting. And though Isa observes and copies others, attempting to fit in, she generally embraces her individuality, even finding love with an albino misfit.

She isn’t different but cleverly distinct, her narrative abundant with embellished diction, justified as stemming from her habit of reading the dictionary. This provides ample room for curious descriptions such as “ensorcelled by her beauty” and “an ingot of pure despair,” but also facilitates the principal hindrance in an otherwise well-crafted and surprising novel.

Even granting her unusual hardships, Isa narrates not as a teen but with adult wisdom, sophistication and awareness. This fundamental inconsistency dislocates the arc of a story that depends on Isa’s growth and development, impeding what should have been a gradual and profound realization that she, like us all, inherited her parent’s journey alongside her own.

The Translator
By Leila Aboulela
BLACK CAT; 203 pages; $13

It would be misleading to assert that religion doesn’t permeate Leila Aboulela’s novel, “The Translator”; yet while Islam does inescapably shape Sammar’s perspective on everything from language to emotion, the story and her life are marked more by grieving her young husband’s accidental death.

True, she sees her prayer mat as the “only stability in life,” and the mourning time decreed by the sharia as “kinder and more balanced” than the four years she lives in Scotland in a sparse room she likens to a hospital, avoiding visiting her son in Khartoum, Sudan, where she was raised. But it’s the origins of her name, which means late night talks with friends, and the struggle to find happiness, that awaken her.

Through dreamlike, disembodied phone conversations with Rae, a professor of third world politics for whom she works as a translator, Aboulela naturally reveals Sammar’s past and propels the story. The first thrust of the novel entrances with her emergence from depression into love, and with light yet not playful, lyrical prose. Such potency is betrayed by an abrupt jump ahead just when Sammar must confront the painful reality of falling for an unbeliever, depriving us of witnessing the entirety of the characters’ journeys.

It’s disappointing the novel’s structure couldn’t embody its most intriguing thematic flirtation, that our most ambitious goal is not originality, but continuity. For apart from underdeveloped metaphors of fog and froth, Aboulela’s refined descriptions reveal intense emotion with staggering restraint, our attention assured with her first words.

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