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A Retrospective Look at the Present
By THERI ALYCE PICKENS
The Night Counter
By Alia Yunis
Three Rivers Press, 2009
Precious few books are written in the vein of Paule Marshall’s “Praisesong for the Widow.” That is, not enough stories are told from the perspective of seasoned women. In this way, Alia Yunis’s debut novel is a refreshing change. “The Night Counter” inverts the bildungsroman and invites us into a retrospective look at the present. If her text feels long at times, it is because she has taken care to develop the characters – even the minor ones – exposing their humor, flaws, and charisma. The result is a finished product that traverses temporal, geographical, and emotional boundaries and forces us to examine who we are and how we got here.
“The Night Counter” traces the history of the Abdullah family from the perspective of their matriarch, Fatima Abdul Aziz Abdullah. Fatima believes she is dying and seeks to bequeath her home in Deir Zeitoon to her grandson, whose homosexuality she refuses to acknowledge. As she awaits death, she keeps company with the wise Scheherazade, who regales her with the goings-on in the lives of Fatima’s eight children and multiple grandchildren: a recovering alcoholic, a flighty fortune-teller, a right wing Republican, a cancer survivor, an unwed teen mother, and so on. The novel is intricately woven, but Yunis keeps the reader’s attention throughout, a testament to her ability to write clearly in multiple voices.
Fatima and Scheherazade make a comically odd, yet very likely pair. At times, Fatima becomes the petulant daughter of Scheherazade and, in other moments, the roles reverse. This constant ebb and flow in their relationship, the movement between the ethereal wisdom of the ages and the earthly wisdom of the years, encapsulates several of the main themes of the text. As Scheherazade watches over Fatima’s progeny, their lives compel us to reckon with the legacy of early twentieth century Arab immigrants. Yunis’ prose affirms the difference supposedly wrought by American soil, but remains skeptical of the distance – especially emotionally – that it creates. Moreover, Yunis explores the meaning of growing old, a question that is usually tangential in ethnic American writing. Fatima’s children, grandchildren, and even the wise Scheherazade constantly patronize her and attribute her behavior to an erratic nature germane to her age. The omniscient narrator does not seem to endorse this view, but rather suggests that Fatima’s isolation is symptomatic of a larger familial ill.
Yunis has a gift for creating multiple compelling characters, from Fatima to her great granddaughter, Decimal, to the reinvented Scheherazade. These women are so complex that readers will feel as though they know them and still be surprised by them (much like Toni Morrison’s “Paradise”). Alia Yunis does not just breathe life into her characters, she writes life itself: surprising, tender, funny, and compelling.