This is a book that I learned about from ANZ Litlovers. And like The Secret Son, another book I encountered there, this one is both a candidate for a favorite for the year and not well-known in this country.
A Girl Made of Dust is set in the battleground of Lebanon in the early 1980s, when Israel invaded Lebanon in a struggle with the PLO. It is the story of three generations of a Christian family struggling through this terrible time and though that makes it sound like a grim book, I found it surprising, pleasing, and uplifting in several ways. It is somewhat autobiographical in that the author's family moved to England from Lebanon in 1983 when she was 11 years old.
The story is told from the point of view of Ruba, an 8 year old child, an unpromising approach that in this case was used to great advantage. Seeing the strong racial prejudices of this world from the viewpoint of an innocent child is to see more clearly.
But Papi was coiled tight like a spring. The Palestinians attacked northern Israel, he said, and the reply always came back ten times as strong, and always aimed at civilians. We were stuck in the middle, watching our own people being killed. 'So now let Israel fix it. Let them do whatever they can to get rid of the Palestinians. They're taking over our country like rats.'
Ruba says, "And I wondered as I left the kitchen why Papi hated the Palestinians so bitterly."
And when it was useful, the "child" was wondrously articulate about the beauty of her world.
There must have been a thousand pine trees, and rock roses and large anemones that made splashes of color among the thorny bushes. A centipede wriggled under a stone as I passed, a butterfly flashed yellow, and I heard a thousand buzzes, whirrs, chirps, and rustles. Beneath that though was a silence deeper than the one in church. Here time stopped and the world went away.
Much is packed into this little volume: the father becomes dysfunctional because of a traumatic event he observes, a 10 year old son is so angry at his father that he becomes unmanageable and joins cruel companions, a beloved uncle is discovered to be selling antiquities on the black market. On a more positive note, grandmother Teta forces Ruba to learn that an old woman in the village is not actually a witch and her granddaughter who cannot speak is a person to be cared for. Though I know very little about Lebanon, I did recognize za'atar, a spice mix that David Lebovitz is enthusiastic about.
Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, A Girl Made of Dust, Fourth Estate (Harper-Collins), 2008, 256 pages (I read the kindle version by Grove Press, 2010). Available through Amazon.