Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber

Another book I never would have read if it weren't for book clubs, and another reason why I think book clubs are great. I am very glad I read this novel. It is not my cup of tea. I don't read a ton of contemporary fiction and the Middle East has never much intrigued me. I don't think I'm a xenophobe, as I have read a lot of Asian and Asian-American lit but it just doesn't pull me in. I think the culture is so opposite from me personally (whereas I do find a lot to relate to in Asian culture) that I have trouble relating. That said, I always think it's good to stretch one's comfort zones and read books one normally wouldn't.

Sirine is 39 and single, a chef at a Lebanese restaurant in Los Angeles. Half-Iraqi, she barely knew her parents, relief workers, before they died when she was a child, and she still lives with the Iraqi uncle who raised her. But she never felt any connection to her own culture, identifying more as a Californian, until her uncle introduces her to Hanif, a professor, who is handsome, kind, fascinating, troubled, and sweeps Sirine off her feet. While she's trying to decide if she really wants to be swept off her feet, as she's been quite satisfied with her life so far and not looked for anything more, things get complicated as life is wont to do. And for the first time in her life, Sirine finds herself curious about Iraq and Islam, beyond just the food.

I think I did the book a disservice by starting to read it in little fits and spurts. This is the kind of book to get lost in - to start and finish all in one day. It is a book to be immersed in. And once I finally did that towards the end, I liked it much more. The book relies a lot on atmosphere which is so ephemeral that it is easily dispersed and hard to gather, which is why it doesn't work as well in bits. Most of the atmosphere comes in the shape of luxuriously described food (I even looked up a recipe for chicken with pomegranate and walnuts that is mentioned in the book) but also music, poetry, politics, and even architecture are all discussed in setting the feel. Sirine doesn't know much about Iraqi culture and Islam, so we learn along with her. I have read some complaints that those parts feel a little contrived and heavy-handed, which I would conceded except that I don't really see any other way for Ms. Abu-Jaber to introduce those concepts. Not to mention, it is very normal for a second-generation immigrant to know nothing of the country from whence her family came and have to learn about it just like any other American. In fact I think if she already did know all about it, that would have felt less authentic to me, given the second and third generation people I have known.

That said, I think what gave me the best feel for Iraqi culture and was (coincidentally?) the least explained was the story of Abdelrahman Salahadin and Aunt Camille, woven throughout the novel, beginning every chapter. I loved this magical story with its jinns and mermaids and Richard Burton. I thought it was just a metaphor and so was surprised how it wove into Sirine's story at the very end, but I thought that it was very cleverly done.

The book is sumptuously written with well-drawn characters who you really feel for. They feel so real and flawed, I found myself truly rooting for some people and not for others. In the end, it still isn't my kind of book, but I did enjoy it and would recommend it to others. And for a book club, there is just so much to discuss!

I borrowed this book from a friend.


Julie @ Read Handed said...

I recently read Abu-Jaber's newest novel, Birds of Paradise, and absolutely loved it. I haven't gotten to her back file yet, but this novel sounds really good. Birds of Paradise has a very small element of Middle-Eastern culture and one of the main characters is a pastry chef, so I think I can tell where the author's interests lie. If you'd like to read my thoughts on Birds of Paradise, you can here.

Brasil said...

I loved this book. I was not sure if I would or not at the end of the first chapter. By the end of the second chapter, I was hooked. This book had everything-interesting characters that were fairly well developed (some could have been a little better developed background wise), great cooking sequences (a recipe appendix would have made this even better), an interesting myth that ran throughout and climaxed with a big surprise, good descriptions of what some Arab Americans are feeling and how some are acting-even this is diversified to some extent. The author explores the spirituality of the Islamic faith to some extent especially the personal interpretations some have. Thoughts of the characters on the specific events of 9/11 were missing, but one could pretty well get a reading to this from the characters' other comments. I must confess that I do not usually like romance in novels, but the romances in this book (the main character and her lover as well as her Uncle and her friend) were just perfectly poignant. Some slight fault in the ending for some, others will love the ending.