Monday, November 7, 2016

The Book of Sands by Karim Alrawi

Cover image from The Star

Published in 2015 by HarperAvenue, a HarperCollins imprint, this novel, set during the Arab Spring protests, portrays just about every ill human beings are heir to: fear, anger, judgment, hypocrisy, xenophobia and violence. Yet the book is full of light and hope.

Protagonist Tarek is enormously appealing. devoted to his nine-year-old daughter Neda, this former political prisoner resorts to math equations, both to explain complex ideas to her, and to encourage his patient wife Mona. Since prison, he's earned his living with a travelling troupe of entertainers. Yet an act of rash curiosity takes this member of "a generation jailed, murdered or fled," to the edge of the protests -- and obliges him to for a second time to abandon a beloved woman in a late stage of pregnancy.

The minor characters are memorable, too. Yara is a fearless medical intern who risks freedom and safety to provide medical aid to the anti-government protesters in Tahir Square. Omar, the devout but increasingly unhinged taxi driver, edges toward an act of breathtaking and irreemable violence. Yet his ignorance, fear and confusion make him pitiably human.

As Tarek and Neda flee the city, readers encounter infernal genies called afrits, uncover breathtaking horrors of past history, and get caught in a terrifying sandstorm. Yet the reader is also immersed in lovely images of the desert and those who live there, full of kindness to strangers in that inhospitable land. Through stories told to Neda, we glimpse the mythical Peacock Angel, and witness the mystery of the cave of swimmers, real or imagined, with its ancient wall paintings.

Along with the characters, we grapple with the big questions. What is the meaning of life? Is reincarnation a reality? How should we behave in order to be good? These ideas are framed in a variety of ways, from scriptural quotations to Russell's Paradox.

Formerly a writer for The Royal Court Theatre in London, Karim Alrawi has hit the ground running with this first novel. This book is at once a mythical journey into the middle ages and earlier, and a glimpse of the very contemporary problems facing middle eastern societies. The HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction couldn't have gone to a more deserving winner.

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