Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli

Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli
English language translation by Michelle Hartman published by Interlink on the 1st April 2021.

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Intergenerational tale of life and love seen through the eyes of three women from Raqqa

The western popular imagination about the now devastated city of Raqqa, Syria is filled with static and clichéd images of the Arab world. On the news, Raqqa looks like a dusty and abandoned desert village overrun by ISIS and other brands of Islamic fundamentalists, making its desperate, impoverished people yearn to flee at all costs. In the Arab popular imagination, the image of Raqqa is not much different--this ancient city, nestled along the Euphrates river in northeastern Syria, is typically thought of by Arabs as a remote Bedouin outpost, far removed from the nearest large metropolis, Aleppo.

People's real lives, however, are always more complex. Nothing could help bring these real and complex histories to more widespread attention than Shahla Ujalyli's brilliant new novel, Summer with the Enemy. This novel is a compelling tale that follows the charming, if at times difficult, everyday life of three women--Lamis, her mother Najwa, and her grandmother Karma - and all of the complexities of their relationships with each other, their extended family, and the wider social worlds they inhabit. The diversity of life in Syria, especially Raqqa, is on display throughout this book, and the stories told in its seven chapters move back and forth between time and place, with attention to the intimate details of lives and relationships, and with an eye to the larger historical and political contexts in which they live.

An intergenerational novel, Summer with the Enemy traces the lives of these women not only in Raqqa where the bulk of the novel is set, but also in the places their families lived before -- Turkey, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus. It reminds us that Syria and Syrians have never been isolated from the world, and that indeed the lives of people stretched far beyond the confines of Raqqa's city limits, long before the online world existed.

Summer With The Enemy is the second of Shahla Ujayli's novels I have read after A Sky So Close To Us a couple of years ago. I did struggle with that one so wanted to try another of her books, but unfortunately found Summer With The Enemy quite hard work to get through as well. On the face of it, this novel should be right up my street: it's a multi-generational tale focusing on women's lives, it comprises historical and contemporary storylines, and it enables readers to understand a very different Syria from the ruined hell of today's news reports. While Lamis is a Syrian refugee now in Cogne, Germany, this isn't a typical refugee novel so I appreciated its wider scope. However I struggled with its rather dry style. Even when Lamis was not the central character, the writing seemed still to be in her voice and there was too much telling and reeling off information for my tastes. I didn't actually give up reading, although I was tempted several times during the second half because there were scenes that captured my interest and imagination, but overall I would have liked more energy and a deeper connection to the surrounding characters.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Shahla Ujayli / Contemporary fiction / Books from Syria

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