Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa is an #OwnVoices Palestinian fiction literature novel about a young named Nehr. She reflects upon her life from her childhood until present day, where she’s in solitary confinement as a political prisoner in a place known simply as The Cube. This was one of my most-anticipated novels for the year and I’m so happy to say that not only did it exceed expectations, it completely kicked them out of the water.
Some of my favourite parts about Against the Loveless World is the voice of the narrator, Nehr, the portrayal of the displacement and dispossession of Palestinians via Israel, the complexities of an identity crisis amid a time of intense political conflicts, and the power of cultural roots.
Nehr is such a remarkable person. Her story is expressed through candid and unfiltered honesty that is at times excruciatingly brutal yet also incredibly wise and thought provoking. As she recalls her younger years and the pivotal points of her youth where her misjudgements led to some godawful experiences, she never tries to sugar-coat the choices she made, or the impact it had on herself and others around her. Rather, she states them matter-of-factly and draws out the lessons that each horrible event inevitably taught her about life. Life as a displaced individual, belonging neither to Kuwait, where she was born, or to Palestine, the homeland she never knew. This created a fascinating dynamic because it became so easy to make excuses on her behalf, yet the evocative nature of that fierce honesty also stuns the reader into silence and accepting that her past is an unchangeable part of her present.
The ferocity of which she keeps moving forward in life is displayed as a trait she inherited from the women in her family. Her mother was a loving wife, who fled to Jordan and then to Kuwait with her husband and mother-in-law. However, her husband eventually returned to Palestine, leaving his family behind to fend for themselves. He ultimately becomes unfaithful and a womaniser (not a spoiler), which forces Nehr’s mother to grow and mature in ways that a person should never have to. She is resolutely independent and sharp-tongued, traits that Nehr inherits. Her mother-in-law, Sitti Wasfiyeh, was also quite similar. Even though they all had significant emotional baggage between them, they stuck together through the thick and thin of it all.
One of the most fascinating elements of Nehr’s father’s past was the toll that his infidelity took on her later in life, becoming a sort of contention within Nehr, which contributes to her missing sense of identity. There is a scene in the book where Nehr is with a man and she can’t help but ponder if her father were the same as him, lying to his family so he could run to some sleazy places and have sex with young women who ultimately meant absolutely nothing to him. This moment is so powerful because it resonates with the symbolism of everything that her father’s decision led to. It was completely heart-breaking.
Despite undergoing some of the most painful hardships that life can bulldoze someone with—loss of family, loss of country, loss of innocence—Nehr never gave up. Even at the absolute worst points in her life. Her fortitude and willpower to survive is unfathomably tenacious, and these were the parts that I related to the most. While I haven’t endured quite the level of difficulties that she has, I’ve still carried my fair share of it. In desperation, it’s easy to feel weak and alone, or at the very least to witness the scars of every failure carved out in every inch our of skin, but when one makes it to the other side; when one finds the solid ground beneath their feet, it’s such an empowering and emboldening realisation.
For Nehr, this driving force that keeps her going is her Palestinian heritage and roots. It’s the fundamental aspect of her whole identity, even while she runs away from it and treats it like a stranger she’s not ready to get acquainted with, sort of like a long, lost relative. The disconnect she’s always felt has in one way or another been one of the main reasons she’s lived so freely, even against her better instincts. But when her journey eventually takes her back to Palestine, she can’t run from it anymore. The people she meets, the land she sees, and intimate connection that forms between her and a country that courses through her veins and the veins of her parents and their parents before them ends up crafting the backbone of her strength. It’s also the parts of the book that are written to be the most emotionally intense and riveting. Abulhawa brings out some of the finest prose writing I have encountered in literature during these scenes. It feels so personal yet passionate, like an elegy of grief and hope.
These portions of the book aren’t easy to read. They are gut-wrenching as great detail is given about what happened to Palestine at the hands of Israel, such as torture and imprisonment, the severe limitations that were placed on Palestinians (they had to obtain foreign residence documents just to remain in their own homes, for example, regardless of being natural citizens), the suppression and eradication of Palestinian cultures and practises, the violence against women, and more. Even though these things are devastating to read, they are also vastly insightful and informative of what a Palestinian’s plight looks and feels like. Most people are aware of it from far-removed sources, but to hear it from so close to home… it’s something else entirely.
Against the Loveless World isn’t only about Nehr though. While she’s the main character and central figure in the narrative, the author does a phenomenal job of getting the reader thoroughly invested in the side and minor characters as well. Their stories and experiences have such profound depth to and exist as more emotional hooks in a story about identity and identity crises comes in all shapes and sizes, particularly where displacement is concerned. For example, when Nehr meets Bilal in Palestine, a man that has an important impact on her moving forward, it was beautifully genuine and so full of warmth. The development of their relationship is superbly written and presented and offers a level of peace that I wasn’t sure I’d get as the reader. Something that wouldn’t be possible if Bilal weren’t given the care and attention required to build a multi-dimensional character of his calibre, regardless of the shorter screen-time, so to speak.
All in all, Against the Loveless World is one of the finest pieces of literature that I have read in all of 2020. It’s a marvellously crafted and meticulously poignant story about what it means to be a dispossessed Palestinian and what the journey home looks like. It’s also a tale about a woman who against all the odds before her, finds a way to stand up and make peace with her traumas and tragedies. It’s about finding happiness where there is only dust and death, and also about being unyielding in the person you want to become, as well as the person you know you can be. I highly recommend this book to people who enjoy historical fiction, own-voices cultural fiction, readers who’d like to understand what’s happening in Palestine from a Palestinian point-of-view, and book lovers that just want to experience some of the most brilliant prose to come out of 2020 yet.
Against the Loveless World hits shelves next week on the 25th of August.