I seem to have made it a habit of picking books that are difficult to write about even though I know that I will spend more time going back and forth about what I can and can’t say than actually sitting down and trying to write a review.
First, it was student suicide, now it is about Israel and Palestine. Everything I read about No Place Strange by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden mentions that it is about a female terrorist named Rafa Ahmed and how her actions have repercussions through two families over the years. It is also billed as a love story between Lydia, a Jewish Canadian woman searching for herself, and Farid, a Lebanese man living in Athens and escaping his family and the war in Beirut. The two make up a pair of classic star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of an ancient blood feud, while also being young and adrift in Greece. I find it funny that the book is advertised this way when neither of these characters is as interesting as Farid’s cousin Mouna, a political activist working in the refugee camps in Beirut. Even Farid’s mother, Mariam, a professor who raises Mouna along with Farid, is more fascinating, staying in Beirut and then leaving for equally sophisticated reasons. Rafa may be the thread that sews them together but I lived to read about Mouna and her various exploits with life, death, sex, and politics. She is independent and fierce, building a protective sense of community among ruins and expats. Mouna asks all the questions you want to ask Lydia, a foil who demonstrates the protagonist’s own wayward sense of self. To quote Mouna, “Is there anything duller than someone in love?”
As I planned to write this blog, I was uncertain about two things: my own understanding of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, and the author’s intentions of writing the novel. I feel a bit more informed at an empathetic level but the novel makes no claims to educate or pretend to be non-fiction which is what I had hoped. One thing I am certain of is Bryden possesses a keen understanding of parenthood and the uneasy relationships holding family members together.
While Beirut is one of the central places of the novel and the conflict between the two central countries is the root of all other conflicts, really, the book is about people and how they are often shaped by circumstances beyond their control. Bryden makes no judgments about the fighting, featuring a cast of Palestinian and Israeli characters in their full humanity. She explains some of the most complicated and human emotions in existence with beautifully prosaic sentences. My favourite being a description of parenthood which I had never thought of before:
Grace said—and Mariam’s lover for Grace was almost boundless—you love adults for their qualities. Your children you love in a different way, you can’t help it; it’s animal and painful. The cliches about being willing to die for them—those are true. Not because you become more noble, or beause you think you should, but because you protect them by instinct, without being able to choose.
No Place Strange is more is a relationship-driven novel than a character-driven one. Which is why I didn’t like the ending very much. It feels incomplete wrapping up what is technically the main plot of the novel (the Lydia-Farid love story) but leaving many of the far more interesting subplots are left more open-ended. In other words, it didn’t finish with Mouna, who being honest, was the only reason I continued to read the book. Mariam played a close second, as Farid was more of a secondary character and Lydia, while essentially the main protagonist, is not nearly as compelling.
There were moments where I felt like the clarity of the storyline was given up in the name of poetry, which can be a pro or a con depending on what kind of reader you are. For me, it meant sometimes I became lost in the timeline as Lydia’s memories and Mouna’s memories collided with the present. Snippets from a fictional book called In Love with Danger also present backstory of Lydia’s father in bits throughout the book, but especially in the first half of the book confused me.
However, if you love a well-crafted sentence then Bryden will not let you down. I really enjoyed and admired her descriptions of place and sensation, sometimes taking on a more travel writing tone. Which may be why I was partial to reading it on the beach, a place which surprisingly lends itself to historical war fiction.