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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: A Girl Made of Dust by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi

Title: A Girl Made of Dust
Author(s): Nathalie Abi-Ezzi
Genre: (YA) Historical Coming-of-Age Fiction
Page Count: 236
Publisher: Doubleday Canada

The Summary (in my own words): Eight-year-old Ruba and her family lived in the village of Ein Douwra outside of Beirut to the rumbles of shellings. It is the 1980s in Lebanon, deep in civil war and the looming Israeli invasion shadowing our tale. But Ruba was concerned with other things: her mother in a permanent state of sadness as she sweeps and cooks in the house, her brother slowly becoming a stranger as he spent more and more time with older boys and guns, and her father who sits on his chair all day long, silent and avoiding the world. When Ruba decides that she has to save her father from the sadness he suffers, she uncovers secrets in her family, one by one... And all the while the events of the war seeping closer and closer to Ruba's town, Ruba's life.

The Review: When I was reading this book the first time around, something about it felt off. I found this book on the YA shelves, knowing that the protagonist was supposed to be eight years-old. However, when I read it, there was something about the narrative that nagged at me. On one hand it was lovely, beautiful prose, and yet on another hand it didn’t fit with the narrative voice I was expecting out of a MG/YA novel. Those who read MG or YA novels may know what I mean: narrative voices that make you feel like you’re hearing the protagonists thoughts, etc. In other words, the voice of the novel was completely off. And yet, on the flip side, I couldn’t say that there was anything wrong with the narration either. There was a beautiful, flowy style to it that I enjoyed very much. It was just that somehow when I put together the narration style I read with my expectations for a YA/MG novel, something didn’t add up.

It wasn’t until I looked up information on this novel online that things started clicking together. I saw copies of this novel with the above cover marketed as YA – and, at the same time, I saw another version of this novel with a different cover marketed as Adult Lit. As far as I can tell they’re both the exact same novel with both versions having the complete text, just marketed to two different groups. And in this case I think this novel very much falls under Adult Lit. The style of the novel just made that much more sense to me if I think of it that way. There’s a style to writing Adult Lit and a voice to writing YA novels that I’ve come to expect, and A Girl Made Of Dust, while failing at capturing the standard YA voice, excelled brilliantly in getting down the Adult Lit narrative style. When I read the novel a second time around, with this information in mind, the novel worked so much better. Fans of the adult literary style and historical fiction should run right now to get your own copy of this novel. You don’t want to miss out on this little gem by a promising debut author.

For me, Adult Lit is all about the writing style, and Abi-Ezzi sure delivers in spades. I love the imagery she has with dust and water, the dried out cactus in the dessert that needs watering. Everything had this parallel to it, almost done cyclically as she switches from dust to water imagery and back. Some of the imagery would be shown in a very direct fashion, like our girl made of dust – who was a girl “covered in sand and dirt”. Or sometimes she’s more subtle about it, weaving together events with words that create an image in our mind. For instance:

Some days ago the street had been black with the mourners, inching their way to church like a stream of melting tar so that we’d had to get off our school bus and walk. Women in the crowd had wailed, a pair of hands rising occasionally to the sky. And at the head of all this the coffin had moved silently along, like a boat with no sail. (33)

The funeral procession linked to an image of water, the sea with crashes of wailing waves and a lone boat floating through it all. *gibbers with hearts in eyes* I love love her writing style. (How crazy is it that she’s a debut author and writes so nicely, btw?! If this is what she can do with a debut novel I could kill to see what she comes up with for her next novel.)

It’s about the present day raging civil war in 1980s Lebanon; it’s about how the past haunts the family members. All this told from a child’s perspective. The thing about children’s narration is that a lot of the times it’ll be a hard sell to convincingly describe the child’s thoughts and actions without making them seem too mature. I think Abi-Ezzi did fairly well on this aspect. There’s a kind of simplicity in the way our protagonist Ruba goes about interpreting the actions of the adults around her. Her family is broken and she knows it has something to do with an event in the past and the old lady who lives in the forest. Ruba looks at these two things and concludes that the old lady must be a witch and casted a spell on her father. It was fascinating, looking at the events of the civil war in 1980s Lebanon through Ruba’s eyes, how the changes in events and people are interpreted by her and how she grows and changes.

I found the storyline about Ruba trying to unravel the secrets of her family the most compelling part. There’s an air of part-mystery, part-magic as she tries to uncover the truth, secrets slowly unraveling one by one, and the sense of Secret Garden-esque magic as she played in the forest, and believed in the breaking of spells to save her father from being so miserable.

I also very much enjoyed all of Ruba’s interactions and relationships with the whole cast. Everyone had a strong sense of presence and self, with complete lives outside of Ruba’s. This being the civil war in 1980s Lebanon, it was particularly interesting to see her relationship between her and Karim. Ruba’s family was Christian and Karim’s was Muslim. And once, Ruba wanted to invite Karim over to her house for a Christian celebration:

’Teta, why can’t Karim do Burbara with us? I was going to help him choose a mask and everything. He would have looked wonderful in a lizard one!’ I watched Teta drop the fruits into the pot.
‘They’re Muslims.’
‘So what?’
‘Listen to the child! She wants Muslims to celebrate the festival of a Christian martyr.’ She shook her head at my stupidity.
‘But Teta, what does it mean, being a Muslim? Is it bad?’
‘Is Karim bad?’
‘Well then.’ (83-84)

To Ruba, there was little to no distinction between people of different religions. Her version of being Christian was walking with her family to Church and listening to man speaking “a foreign language a lot of the time, maybe so God could understand, only I didn’t think God would be interested if He’d heard the same thing every Sunday for a hundred years.” (17) It was interesting to see how she slowly connected the targeted people in the war when the Israelis were Muslim, and how she worried over her friend Karim and what that meant for him.

This being set in a civil war, death was particularly prevalent in this novel. There was one particular striking passage I’d like to point out:

’They’re going to drag a man behind a car!’ I said. ‘Papi, can we go up to the main road and watch?’
He stared as though a scorpion had come out of my mouth. (201)

Her disconnect with actions that would lead to death and the event of death itself was fascinating yet horrifying at the same time, and how she slowly understood as her Papi explained what it meant to “drag a man behind a car.”

The use of 1980s Lebanon as a setting was also exceptionally well done. As the story progressed, behind Ruba’s daily life we’d get a repeated reminder of the shellings going off, and how the mention of bombings and destruction increase one by one. The town of Ein Douwra was elegantly realized as well. The description of an almost idyllic forest and how it becomes ruined over the course of the story was heartbreaking to see. There was this moment when Ruba was huddling in the building as the bombings went on, and visualized her forest she used to always play in for a paragraph, and her description abruptly cuts off at the sound of the next bombing. Her image of her forest died with it.

Abi-Ezzi brings the novel to a close with an ambiguous, hopeful in tone yet sad in context of the situation at hand. It was an excellent ending that brought a lovely tied up ending to Ruba’s whole wish to see her father “get well”. It was an ending that stayed with me for a long while after finishing, and I won’t be forgetting this novel for a while.

The Verdict: Why are you not running to buy a copy of this novel yet? GO. NOW. A must-buy with great characters, beautiful narrative, and a haunting setting, a story that grips you by the heart. What more can anyone want out of a novel, really?

Rating: 10/5
Enjoyment: 100% !! ♥

Title and Cover Discussion: The most perfeeeeeeeeeect title. Sums up everything and when you’re done reading, you realize the novel really WAS about the girl made of dust. But I won’t say anymore for fear of spoilers. Now as for the cover, I love it and it was the cover that made me pick up the novel in the first place, but at the same time it loses points for not being particularly reflective on the contents within the novel. Half of me feels like it should have got the standard Adult Lit cover treatment but my gawd I love this watercolour illustrations and illustrated covers are practically non-existent in the Adult Lit section last time I checked. It’s strange because it’s the beautiful packaging of this novel that made me pick it up in the first place and yet I feel that it doesn’t quite match the novel it’s supposed to represent. *shrugs* But then again I probably would have never found this novel if they didn’t marketed it for the YA shelves so I really shouldn’t deduct too many points on that front. (I do like Adult Lit! I just shy away from wandering the shelves and only check out Adult Lit books on the recommendation of others.)

Title: A+!
Cover: B+

This novel counts for this month’s Social Justice theme of Religious Freedom

Note: If you wrote a review for this novel and like to link me, please feel free to do so in the comments. =D


Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

A great review of a book that now - I want to, have to read! Thanks for posting this!

ibeeeg said...

This sounds like an interesting read. I am going to put it on my list for a future read.