Survival amid the vicissitudes of war
NATHALIE Abi- Ezzi locates her debut novel, A Girl Made of Dust, during the 1982 Lebanon war. Ten- year- old Ruba lives with her Christian family in Ein Dowra, a small town south of the capital, Beirut. The Israeli army has invaded southern Lebanon, and F- 16 planes are bombing nearby refugee camps and other targets thought to harbour forces of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Despite the escalating violence, the invasion is a peripheral event initially, and Abi- Ezzi deftly weaves it through the narrative. For this small community, the war has more practical implications: food rationing, electricity and water shortages, the sly recognition of intelligence officers, the mukhabarat, living clandestinely in the community.
Yet no one is completely stifled by these vicissitudes: Ruba attends school, plays in the street with friends, and with her older brother Naji visits the generous Muslim sweet- shop owner, Ali. As the novel progresses, however, a more insidious secret is revealed, one that plagues Ruba’s father, Papi, keeping him confined to the house: the mystery of the eponymous girl made of dust and her murder in a Beirut alleyway.
Abi- Ezzi’s characters are stoic and resourceful; they are not without flaws. With the family business stalled, Ruba’s mother must manage the household, and her culinary expertise is amusingly rudimentary: ‘‘ In the kitchen, Mami was cooking as though she were in a race.’’ Uncle Wahid, a suave businessman from Beirut, appears intermittently; he has secrets of his own.
Ruba’s bond with her grandmother, Teta, is especially moving. There is such poignancy when ‘‘ the wrinkled skin of her chest showed as she ( Teta) unbuttoned the top of her shirt to let in the cool air, and I saw the little wad of tissues she always kept tucked in her shoulder strap for when she cried’’. Most nuanced is Ruba’s relationship with Naji. On the cusp of adolescence, Naji is beginning to rebel against family constraints; he is resentful, especially of his emasculated father.
A Girl Made of Dust is a simple, honest story; it is certainly no great literary feat. The language is direct, though with a tendency to sermonise (‘‘ Patience will extract sugar from a lemon’’), and phrases such as ‘‘ the silence around us thickened like rice pudding, and words could no longer cut through it’’ make for turgid reading on occasion.
Christian symbolism also weighs heavily in the narrative: ‘‘ a huge embroidered picture of Christ’s head bled and shone out great beams of light’’ and, dubiously, ‘‘ the August sun rose like Jesus’’. This is suitably tempered, however, by Ruba’s religious scepticism.
There is some fine description of the natural landscape: ‘‘ the forest would be changing, its old skin peeling off like a scab to uncover a shiny new softness’’, while ‘‘ the sound of the cicadas in the valley throbbed on and on like blood pumping around an aching head’’ evokes the potent symbolism of martyrdom.
Ruba is an engaging, perceptive narrator, albeit cynical beyond her years. Chary of her place in this tenuous world, subjectivity is her fascination, the articulation of voice and its significance. She ponders, for example, ‘‘ what Jesus’ voice sounded like’’. When she befriends the lonely Huda, who has not spoken since the death of her mother, Ruba wonders if ‘‘ someone’s voice gets amputated? A voice, cut off. It would be floating out there in the air, in space where no one would hear it.’’
This is a painful reminder of the many untold stories from a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and militia members. Loosely based on her childhood experiences, Abi- Ezzi’s novel is a testimony to survival. Rebecca Starford is deputy editor of the Australian Book Review.