I read Joukhadar’s first novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, a few years ago and LOVED IT. It made my Top Ten Reads of 2019 list, actually. So, I was freaking PSYCHED to see his second novel get published. And, this cover is gorgeous. That’s about all I have to say about this “I knew for sure I was going to read this one” novel.
“You can have all the truth in the world of something, he wrote to me, but the world will see what it wants to see, and maybe it’s for the best to keep some beautiful things to ourselves.”
This novel is told in alternating perspectives. Our present-day, unnamed, narrator lives in NYC with his grandmother, with the lingering grief and guilt and trauma of his mother’s violent death five years ago, and dealing with his own knowledge of his trans identity and trying to work through how to live as that true person and tell his family/friends. Our narrator from the past, Laila, is an artist and Syrian immigrant to NYC, learning to find her place in a new country, creating new relationships while holding on to ones left behind. Connected over the years by a love of art/painting, birds, and some long-kept family secrets, our narrators’ stories unfold simultaneously as they each come into their own decisions and futures.
It took me almost a month to read this book. That’s a long time for me, but it was absolutely the right way to take in this gorgeously written and emotionally charged piece of art. This is about as reflective and introspective and poetic a novel as I’ve ever read and I feel like to truly appreciate it all, in its entirety, the slow and purposeful reading style was perfect. Let me start with the aura and ambiance created by the writing, because it was so beautifully evocative. There was an air of the mysterious, of the otherworldly, to it from the very first page. There’s a purposeful, lyrical aspect of the fantastical, the mythological – a sort of unreality – while still managing to remain entirely grounded in reality (the connections and harsh realities therein) that was masterfully executed. The way birds are woven in, as both “magical realism” and realistic only adds to the ephemeral feeling the writing creates. And, just in general, the way Joukhadar explores grief/loss, queer and trans experiences and communities, the importance and role of art as a coping mechanism and in greater society, interwoven with each other and throughout time and space and generations, is stunning and, as I mentioned earlier, so emotionally charged.
Going back, yet again, to Joukhadar’s way with words, the way he is able to capture the internal trans experience, the self-knowledge of wrongness of the body and the feeling of helplessness/inability to do anything in the face of biology and society, and convey it to a general readership is just…beyond. So impactful. I truly don’t have the words to appreciate it as much as it deserves, nor to properly thank Joukhadar for sharing what can only be an intensely personal truth. I also want to point out the general love I had for the way trans and queer communities were given voice here, not just in the present day, but in the reality of their existence across space (country to country/culture to culture – a universal presence) and time (years, generations), despite what popular cis-hetero agendas/POVs say and the margins they’ve been pushed into. This particular aspect (and the grieving of a mother) reminded me a bit of All My Mother’s Lovers and, though the writing and style is very different, I think if you like one of these, you should definitely try the other. A final note that I want to emphasize is the way Joukhadar recognizes indigenous populations throughout the novel, both in NYC/America and in Syria, as well as what those with power/money have done (and continue to do) to their land/legacy.
My one iffy spot about the novel is that the interconnections of the characters do border on too convenient, at times. Although the connection of our present-day narrator and Laila in the past is eventually explained, and is not so coincidental as it first seemed, there are a few other sometimes-too-perfect coincidences. However, although I thought that as I read them, I have to say that my emotional reaction to the finale was no less emotional for all that, so perhaps it really doesn’t matter that much.
This was a really wonderful second novel, in my opinion. Similarly uplifting of Joukhadar’s own identities (in this case not just being Syrian, but being a trans man of Syrian descent), and both beautifully crafted stories, as far as writing, dual POV structure and the folklore/story-telling or fantastical pieces. Though the pacing was very different (I sped through Salt and Stars and savored this one), both are compassionate and sensitive and aching and the poignancy of each is important in its own way. This novel is one I recommend being in the right mindset for, before picking it up, but its worth it.
You knew, if I talked about the writing so much, that I’d have a lot of highlighted passages to share. Let me not disappoint:
“It is one thing to have a body; it is another thing to struggle under the menacing weight of its meaning.”
“You taught me that revelation has its price in a world that prefers the comfort of closed eyes.”
“But how the explain this feeling that my body was a tracing of something else, and not all the lines matched up?”
“This is the constant wish that I’ve harbored since the day the bleeding started: that I could exist outside myself, that I could disappear the wrongness in me.”
“…that agonizing feeling that this body does not belong to me but to all the people who insist on how I should exist inside of it, that unshakable twinge that tells me that something, perhaps everything, is very, very wrong.”
“I used to think remembering could be a kind of resistance, but I’m not sure it’s enough.”
“To the night, I am a body without a past or a future, a pillar that bends light. The night doesn’t know my name.”
“When this country asks me where I’m from, they aren’t asking for the city on my birth certificate, but whose earth is in my blood.”
“…whether there was any mercy in the world for those who decline to carry the burdens they are assigned to carry. My mother’s back and mine were made from the same mold. Our spines were fashioned for bearing and bending and bowing and burying. Our backs had been honed over generations for the thankless labor of women. They had never been made for wings.”
“Time hides the people we might have been if things were different.”
“How different the world would look if it had mercy toward migrations undertaken as a last resort against annihilation.”
“I think to myself, It is terrifying to be visible, and then I think, I have been waiting all my life to be seen.”
“…not all migrations end with a return home. Even memory begins to cut if you hold on to it too tight.”