Friday, 11 January 2019

A Sky So Close To Us by Shahla Ujayli


A Sky So Close To Us by Shahla Ujayli
First published in Arabic as Samaa qaraibah min baytinaa in Syria in 2015. English language translation by Michelle Hartman published by Interlink in October 2018.

A for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and one of my WorldReads from Syria

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A multigenerational tale of love, loss, exile, and rebirth, shortlisted for the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. 

As children sleeping on the rooftop of their ancestral family home in Raqqa on warm summer nights, Joumane and her sisters imagine the sky is so close they can almost touch it. Years later, Joumane lives as an expatriate in Jordan, working for a humanitarian agency, while her sisters remain trapped in war-torn Syria. Living alone as she fights her own battle with cancer, she contemplates the closeness of the same sky, despite the sharply delineated borders that now separate her from her family. Her only close confidant is another exile, a charming, divorced Palestinian man with whom she develops a warm relationship later discovering that their relatives were neighbors in Syria. As Joumane undergoes painful chemotherapy treatments, Nasser slides into the role of her caretaker and partner. She comes to depend on him utterly, at the same time fearing that her vulnerability and need will ultimately drive him away.

Interspersed with Joumanes story is a sweeping historical narrative that moves from nineteenth-century Aleppo, Raqqa, and Damascus, to Palestine before and after the 1948 Nakba, to Iraq before and after the American occupation, and beyond to the United States, Serbia, and Vietnam. Each character in the book is revealed, and linked, through the stories of their ancestors, showing the intergenerational inheritance of trauma and identity. Ujaylis attention to detail and evocative prose brings to life worlds forgotten and ignored, reminding us of the devastation of war and the beauty that people create wherever they go.

I wish I had known, prior to starting to read A Sky So Close To Us, that its structure is not the kind of linear narrative that I am used to reading. Instead we readers are led by a meandering route to discover a seemingly disparate crowd of people whose lives take place decades apart. They are all linked of course, but it took me nearly half the novel to understand these often tenuous connections and, by then, I wasn't always even sure that I would keep reading! Ujayli introduces each new character by giving a lot of their backstory and, once their section has passed, we might not see a specific person again, but a hundred pages later we do see their cousin or their former neighbour! I found this baffling to say the least so, while I appreciated the central storyline of Joumane life, I struggled to also contend with the myriad of side stories. Perhaps if I had a better knowledge of modern Syrian history and geography I would have found it easier to place each individual in place and time.

I could see distinct parallels between Joumane's endurance of her cancer treatment and Syria's endurance of its seemingly endless wars and invasions. From reading A Sky So Close To Us I could see that pretty much every generation since the 1940s has found itself under attack. What really shone through Ujayli's prose too is a poignant melancholy for the now destroyed Aleppo and Raqqa. Early on she mentions the Turkish idea of 'huzum' that I learned about through Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul and I felt the same emotion here. I would have loved to have experienced the same depth of feeling for the minor characters as I did whilst spending time with Joumane. She speaks to us in the first person so I felt very much with her, but her recounting of historical anecdotes and family memories seemed so much drier and I often then found myself drifting. I understand that the drifting together and apart of so many people is a direct result of so much unrest within the region and depicting this movement as Shahla does is an accurate reflection of Joumane's circumstances and experience. However I think personally I needed a more focused narrative to fully appreciate what A Sky So Close To Us has to say.

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Books by Shahla Ujayli / Contemporary fiction / Books from Syria

4 comments:

  1. oh this reminds me of my own childhood! In the summer we used to get on the rooftops to fly kite and then when night fell to stargaze and sometimes we would fall asleep :) Years later a continent away from how I often look at the night sky to think about the loved ones that are so far away. All the topic on this book are very interesting and I'm sure it is an emotional read!

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    1. That sounds amazing and just like some of the scenes in this novel. I think you could connect quite strongly with Joumane's childhood here though it could make you too homesick?

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  2. I'm currently actually starting to realise that I do love books where the narrative isn't linear, especially if the author plays around with chronologically how the story connects. But to be fair, this one sounds like it gets a bit confusing because of that!

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    1. I think I might have been better with this one on audio to slow my reading speed down. I'm a fast reader anyway and sometimes too fast for my own good!

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