03 June 2009 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme

Unlike some books I have had from ER recently, this was what it promised.  Well, and a bit more too, actually.

Basically the story of small-town American Elaine, living in New York, who met Mohammed at University in the 1950s, fell for him there and then, married him and moved to Damascus in Syria to live in an apartment block with his extended family.  The story covers the first fifteen or so years in detail, including both the good and bad aspects of expatriate life in a very different community. 

Elaine is fortunate in her extended family, who welcome her with open arms and take great pains to help her settle in, guiding her gently rather than criticising, making allowances and providing her with a lot of emotional and practical support.  While she gains a lot from her non-Syrian friends, her "support group", she grows to identify very closely with her family too.  A lot of this is to do with the kind of person she seems to be – embracing Islam, learning Arabic and the local dialect, keeping her loves such as reading while bending into the ways of the family.  She, and we, find this behaviour vindicated when she is accepted as a natural member of the family at a funeral.  Interestingly, she also draws closer to her own sisters.

It’s not all autobiographical and what I tag "immigrant experience" though.  Where this book gains a lot is in the chapters interspersed through the book, where Elaine faithfully records the stories of her husband’s family and, as a result, the history of Syria in the 20th century.  These parts are told very well, using different idioms and styles which are evocative of the different people who told her the tales.  I learnt a lot about Syrian history through these sections, and the history she recounts finds uneasy echoes in the experiences the family goes through during the conflicts of the 1960s and 70s.

Unsparing of the more difficult aspect of life in Syria, but ultimately positive and celebratory, this is both an excellent example of the Immigrant Abroad narrative, and a good introduction to the history of the area.