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The Loved Ones: A Modern Arabic Novel

by Alia Mamdouh

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291827,998 (2.75)3
"Ferocious, visceral descriptions . . . give a powerful sense not only of Suhaila's world but also of the way we make and understand memories."--Booklist "Often intense and lyrical."--Kirkus Reviews This winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature mingles memories of the past with the shifting voices of the present when the estranged son of an Iraqi exile flies from his home in Toronto to visit her in Paris. As his ailing mother, the once-vibrant Suhaila, lies in a hospital bed, he acquaints himself with her constellation of close friends. Immediately, he becomes immersed in the complex relationships he has fought so hard to avoid: with his mother and his war-torn homeland. Alia Mamdouh weaves a magical tale of the human condition in this stunning and beautifully written novel of faith, family, and hope.… (more)
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Prize winning Arabic novel.

I found this book incredibly difficult to read. I had to force myself to read 20 pages per day to read it in time for a book group. I had wondered if the translation was partly to blame, but some of our members read it in Arabic and had the same response.

The central character, Suhaila, is only known to us through her friends and her son. She is unconscious throughout the book and they are visiting with gifts and much conversation, with her (one way), and with each other. They also discuss her with her son, Nader, who has come over from Canada on hearing of his mother's illness. However, we never actually discover what is causing her ailments. The doctor says: "A surge in her blood pressure set off tremors in the veins that send the blood to the brain. There was a hemorrhage and it stopped....." P131.

Through all these interactions we learn of her early life in Iraq and subsequent exile to Paris. Her arranged marriage to an Iraqi soldier had been unhappy and abusive and she had left Iraq when he had disappeared. Her son appears to have been distant both geographically and mentally and he has left his young wife and their son back in Canada.

The problem is, nothing happens. The whole book is a conversation between various characters, who, in turn describe other characters. What little I learned of life in Iraq was padded out with an excess of language that made every page a struggle.

The author is due to make an appearance at the Dubai Literary Festival in March this year, perhaps I will glean a little more of the book's meaning then. Meanwhile, I am dreading my next read, Naphtalene, also by Alia Mamdouh, and for another book group. It does get slightly better ratings, so fingers crossed. ( )
  DubaiReader | Jan 15, 2014 |
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"Ferocious, visceral descriptions . . . give a powerful sense not only of Suhaila's world but also of the way we make and understand memories."--Booklist "Often intense and lyrical."--Kirkus Reviews This winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature mingles memories of the past with the shifting voices of the present when the estranged son of an Iraqi exile flies from his home in Toronto to visit her in Paris. As his ailing mother, the once-vibrant Suhaila, lies in a hospital bed, he acquaints himself with her constellation of close friends. Immediately, he becomes immersed in the complex relationships he has fought so hard to avoid: with his mother and his war-torn homeland. Alia Mamdouh weaves a magical tale of the human condition in this stunning and beautifully written novel of faith, family, and hope.

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