By Sarah Houssayni
Anaphora Literary Press, 2015.
Sarah Houssayni’s debut novel, “Fireworks,” begins at the onset of the Israeli 2006 bombing of Lebanon in retaliation for the Hezbollah kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. This promising novel interweaves the story of two single women, one a 30-year old American nurse from Kansas and one young, 16-year old Lebanese teenager, both trying to negotiate family pressures while searching for love.
Angela, the American nurse, suffers a painful loss when a baby she cares for dies, and a breakup when David, her Jewish American boyfriend leaves her due to religious differences. Traveling to the Mediterranean in hopes that the change of scenery will help her heal, she finds herself in Lebanon, where she sometimes plays the annoying American who can’t understand the Lebanese attitude towards Israel. When Israeli bombs start to fall, the young nurse decides to return to the States, and reveals another side of her character when she gives up her seat at the American Embassy to aid a young mother and her ill child.
Before Angela can return to the safety of America, she encounters several stock Lebanese stereotypes, such as the Christian who, regardless of the Israeli attack, only wants to go skiing in the mountains, and the well do Muslims impersonating Christians in order to leave the area. Yet, through her good deed helping the mother and her ailing child, Angela also meets the polite, intelligent and yes, handsome Doctor Nadim. A non practicing Shi’ite and gay man who, after studying in the States, returned to Lebanon in the aftermath of 9/11. Nadim’s genuine, three dimensional character embodies the empathy and humanity of modern Lebanon.
The second narrative follows Zahra, a perceptive young Shi’ite woman who wants to finish school, and explores her sexuality when she falls in love with a young neighbor. When the Isreali bombs start to fall, their families flee, interrupting the innocent and furtive clandestine meetings between the young lovers. Houssayni realistically recounts the dangers of traveling on roads flooded with refugees, the panic of not knowing their family members’ whereabouts, the tensions rampant in overcrowded safe houses and the heroic cult status of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasralleh.
Made vulnerable by the dangerous situation, the death of her father, her family’s poverty, and her beauty, Zahra’s family pressures her to accept the marriage proposal of the unpleasant ogre of a neighbor whose relatives offers them shelter. While, the young woman has no choice but to accept, she cannot suppress her impulse for love and life, which leads to a personal explosion that echoes the falling bombs.
Houssayni deftly outlines the emotional layers and types of family pressures that exist in both Lebanon and the American Midwest, while her medical background adds touching sincerity to the hospital scenes. Despite Angela’s occasional grating self indulgences, “Fireworks” provides an accurate portrayal of civilian life during the Israeli bombing, and stresses the grief experienced on both sides of the ocean due to the loss of children to both natural and man-made causes.
This review is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid Magazine (Vol. 19, No. 69, 2015)
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