About ten years ago I tried to read one of Sebastian Faulks’ novels–Birdsong, I think. I got about fifty pages into it and then gave up in disgust, bored to tears. A few weeks later I came across some interview with him in a paper wherein he was asked why he thought his novels appealed so much to women; his answer, if I recall correctly, was something along the lines of ‘I think women like my novels because I write from their perspective and in order to do this you have to really, really love them.’ This is patent nonsense. You can love a thing (or a person) to distraction and not have the faintest clue how they work inside. As far as I could tell from my attempt at reading his work, Sebastian Faulks’ novels are popular with women because they are romance novels in the line of Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier; better written than your average pulp/Harlequin nonsense but often relying on the same tired damsel-in-distress motif to model a plot on. (Perhaps I do an injustice to Seton and du Maurier; from what I’ve read of them their damsels do have a bit of gumption and don’t–always–rely on a man to save them. Perhaps I do an injustice to Faulks–Charlotte Grey seemed like she might be a more interesting heroine. However, there are so many other writers whose work does not make me want to throw the book across the room in irritation that I have no intention of reading more of Faulks to find out.)
So anyway. This is not a post about Sebastian Faulks. This question of how well writers of one gender can write from the perspective of another is forever popping up in literary journalism, and it’s one I’ve always been interested in, mostly because I think it’s not actually that difficult to do if one can separate what makes a person human and from the boxes and labels that social prejudice has trained us to fix onto whatever is “other” to us, be that gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc. Alameddine excels in this regard, and has a particular gift for rendering characters of extraordinary quiet human grace.
The first of his works I read (well, listened to as an audiobook) was An Unnecessary Woman, in one of my sporadic attempts to keep up with novels when they’re published, rather than ten years afterwards (I still kick myself for having waited so long to read The Blind Assassin). I loved it and intend to read it again–as a paper book, this time–but it was that level of enjoyment that makes me seek out another of the writer’s books (in no great hurry) rather than immediately place that work on the shelf of my very favourites.
A few months later I decided to listen to I, the Divine, because it kept popping up on my Amazon and Goodreads recommendations and I loved the cover. Once in a while a publisher does give a book a cover as gorgeous as the story within. (I didn’t set out to consume all of his novels as audiobooks, it was kind of an accident of circumstance.) About an hour in I started finding excuses to keep listening–I get so much more housework done when there’s an audiobook I’m desperate to finish–and wondering why it had not won *all* the awards when it was published. Did its publisher not submit it for prize consideration? Did people just not read it? Why? Once I’d finished the novel, I sort of understood why didn’t win all the awards, but I maintain that it should have won some and it deserves to be much better known. Upon Googling the book, I found a handful of reviews, but there wasn’t a huge amount of press–his more recent novels have happily garnered more attention. I’m glad An Unnecessary Woman and The Hakawati got all the attention that they did, but I, the Divine, is every bit as good. I suspect Koolaids will be as well–that’s next on my list.
I, the Divine is the story of Sarah and her rather large collection of parents, step- and grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, ex-husbands and lovers, at various points across their lives in Lebanon and the U.S. Each chapter is the “first”, approaching Sarah’s story from a new perspective, moving backward and forward in time until a full picture finally emerges. It is not a story about achieving a grand understanding, or how a single event shapes one life, or a number of lives; it is about one person learning to understand herself, and a group of people learning to understand each other, shaped by a series of events and relationships that not all of those involved are aware of, even as they are affected by the consequences. If you prefer straightforward, linear narratives, then this is not the novel for you, but if experimental and unusual narrative forms are to your taste, give it a try. It is variously wickedly funny, moving, and heartbreaking. It is about a large family in Lebanon and their experience during the war there; it is about living as a foreigner in the United States; it is about being a woman in two different cultures where women are still seen as less capable, and whose value is ultimately measured in terms of how well they fulfill the roles of wife, mother, and sex object, regardless of their other talents and accomplishments; and, like most good novels, it is an insight into how we can be damaged by events and actions we have no control over, how we try our best to conceal and grow past those traumas, and don’t always succeed. There is also a foul-mouthed parrot named Cookie whose few scenes would be worth reading the novel for even if the rest of the story was dull. (Trigger warnings: There is a lot of swearing, not least of which is the parrot’s x-rated commentary during his few appearances; there is also a fairly graphic description of a sexual assault. This is not a novel for young teenagers.)
I, the Divine made Alameddine one of my favourite writers, so like all objects of my hero-worship I started looking up everything I could find on him. He was a successful artist before publishing his first novel, and he maintains an active and interesting presence on social media. His blog, The Art Divas, is full of gorgeous poetry and visual arts, and he announces his presence on Twitter every morning with a spate of the funniest, most random, or just plain strangest gifs on offer on a given day. He also posts poetry from other writers on his Facebook page on a regular basis, and has excellent taste. I very much understand why some writers eschew social media altogether, but I love how he uses his presence to promote the things he loves and believes worthy of more attention, and I wish more artists did the same (Janelle Monae and Lin-Manuel Miranda do similar things, but we need more in this vein, I think).
A few related links worth checking out:
If you haven’t read any of Rabih Alameddine’s novels, do yourself a favor and pick one up the next time you’re in a decently stocked bookstore, or order one from Powell’s or Amazon or wherever. His next novel, The Angel of History, is out next October, and I can’t wait.