From page 91

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When Richard Ford’s novel

was pub­lished in 2012, many crit­ics made men­tion of its ar­rest­ing open­ing line: “First, I’ll tell about the rob­bery our par­ents com­mit­ted. Then about the murders, which hap­pened later.” The Le­banese au­thor and jour­nal­ist Rabee Jaber trumps Ford by kick- start­ing his novel Con­fes­sions with a terser, more im­me­di­ate, ar­guably more re­pel­lent yet ul­ti­mately more invit­ing first sen­tence: “My fa­ther used to kid­nap peo­ple and kill them.” Death stalks the pages of Jaber’s novel. It plays out against the vi­o­lence of Le­banon’s Civil War, and by the end of the book all of its char­ac­ters have been af­fected by the con­flict – some merely tainted, oth­ers cor­rupted or de­stroyed.

Its nar­ra­tor is Maroun, who looks back on the first decades of his life grow­ing up in East Beirut. We fol­low him through the years, from the mid-70s to the present day, over which time he tries to make sense of the chaos and suf­fer­ing on the streets and at home, while also at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand who he is and where he came from.

Maroun be­gins by ran­sack­ing his mind for his ear­li­est mem­o­ries. He re­mem­bers his mother mak­ing date cook­ies, his sis­ter peel­ing onions and his fa­ther car­ry­ing him across a river.

But in with the fond rem­i­nis­cences are mo­ments of pro­found gloom.

He re­calls the pic­ture of his murdered brother hang­ing on the fam­ily’s liv­ing room wall, and how his sis­ters would look at it, then at him, and burst into tears. His mother would cry in church. Later, he re­mem­bers not glances and ges­tures but his older brother’s words: their fa­ther changed “in a sin­gle night and day”.

News comes in of his atroc­i­ties: “He was forc­ing peo­ple out of their cars and beat­ing them. He was shoot­ing them and throw­ing them off a bridge.”

But af­ter spend­ing sev­eral pages dredg­ing up and sift­ing through child­hood images, Maroun breaks off and de­cides to start afresh. “In or­der to tell you my story, I need to start with my lit­tle brother. They kid­napped and killed him.”

A graphic and ter­ri­fy­ing se­quence of events un­folds. Af­ter an ag­o­nis­ing ab­sence, the tiny bloody corpse of a 9-year-old boy shows up; a fa­ther buries his son then be­gins a re­tal­ia­tory killing spree; in one at­tack he and his gang open fire on a fam­ily in their car, spar­ing only one oc­cu­pant, a young boy, whom the fa­ther takes home and names Maroun af­ter his dead son.

“I’m Maroun,” our nar­ra­tor then an­nounces. “I’m the boy they kid­napped.”

Jaber’s fiendish twist trans­forms the novel. From this point on we read it as not only an ac­count of a life lived but also a study of self­hood, iden­tity and the il­lu­sori­ness of mem­ory.

Maroun, the sur­ro­gate son, raids his past to fill in the gaps and to get peace of mind. He recre­ates his school years, de­scrib­ing the shelling he and his

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