Coming of Age, Exile, and War

Pauline Homsi Vinson

The Bullet Collection

Patricia Sarrafian Ward

St. Paul : Graywolf Press, 2003.

"The Bullet Collection" is an excellent first novel by Patricia Sarrafian Ward. With its focus on coming of age, war, and exile, it captures the devastating psychological impact of war on personal lives.The author weaves together autobiographical elements, historical events, and fictional narrative while exploring the role of narration in recovering the past.

The story is narrated by Marianna, who, like Patricia Sarrafian Ward, left Lebanon for the United States at age 18 with her family because of the war. Also like Ward, Marianna has an American father and an Armenian mother. These and other autobiographical elements in the novel are interwoven with historical events and fictional narrative. The result is a moving expression of loss occasioned by war and exile - loss of childhood, home and of homeland, people and places.

The story concentrates on two sisters: the narrator, Marianna, and her older sister, Alaine. In Lebanon, Alaine experiences a psychological breakdown that mirrors the external, socio-political breakdown caused by the war. Brooding, suicidal, and self-destructive, she collects bullets, pieces of shrapnel, and other war debris, which in turn become hidden tokens of her internal disintegration.

Alaine's dominating and destructive personality is countered by her younger sister's willed cheerfulness. Always trying to measure up to her older sister, the younger Marianna first takes on a protective, almost maternal tone toward her sister and parents, only eventually to succumb to the same "war sickness" as her sister when she too begins to skip classes at school and becomes obsessed with visiting an injured French soldier of Lebanese origin as he recovers in the hospital.

Though she feels that her blonde complexion makes her look like a foreigner in Lebanon, when she arrives in the U.S., her father's birth country, Marianna feels more alienated than her older sister, whose dark looks Marianna had associated with Lebanon. In a reversal of their previous roles, the older sister begins to make a home for herself in the U.S., fixing up their run-down rental house, painting the walls, and planting flowers in her efforts at renewal and recovery. In contrast, Marianna is unable to adjust to her new life in America, and sinks deeper into despair, succumbing to despondency and suicidal tendencies.

In great detail, the novel evokes Marianna's alienation by contrasting the physical aspects of home in Lebanon and America. Life in Lebanon is expressed through the narrator's recollections of the feel of the tiled floors and concrete walls, the smell of mosquito repellent and the sounds that come through windows that had to be left open in order to prevent the glass from shattering from the pressure of explosions. The feel of a run-down American apartment, with its wooden structure and private backyard, stands in stark contrast to Marianna's experience in Lebanon. Even Lebanese home-cooked food in the U.S. cannot capture the same taste it had in Lebanon. This, the novel, suggests, is the taste of exile, a foreignness that pervades every aspect of one's life.

Repeatedly, the book suggests that the past matters, yet none of the adult characters in the novel want to remember it. The memory of the Armenian genocide hovers around the characters from the mother's side. The American father - ironically a historian whose own brother died in the Korean War - feels disconnected from his own personal history. His American childhood is glimpsed only through his love of peanut butter. When he finally leaves the "land he loves" to return to his native country, he finds himself a stranger. Forced to start over, he gives up his university position and accepts a job as a clerk in the local grocery store.

Significantly, much of what is going on around the two young sisters in Lebanon is left unsaid. In the latter half of the novel the older Marianna alludes to historical events and political groups. She mentions the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans, the various Lebanese factions, kidnappings, deaths, and devastation - only as background to the turbulence in the girls' lives, for whom "normalcy" had become the tension and anxiety created by war. What it means to grow up in a war is sharply contrasted by the narrator's nostalgia for what she imagines must have been her mother's more peaceful childhood in Lebanon, a childhood that she would have liked to have had, and feels she should have had, but could not because of the war.

The silence regarding political events during the war seems emblematic of several related issues: young children's incomprehension of what is going on in the world around them; the parents' ignorance of what is going on their children's lives; the tendency in Lebanese society not to confront the real problems that exacerbate the war. In their efforts to counteract this willful amnesia, both sisters, at various times, insist on wearing jackets that once belonged to men who were killed in the war, insisting that we somehow carry with us the remnants of our collective and individual past.

Ward masterfully recreates the difficulty of delving into the past in narrative form. The novel begins with a recollection of an idyllic childhood that was only possible before the war "was real." It quickly shifts to the present time of narration, the American home to which the narrator cannot adjust, and then shifts back to recreate in episodic and cryptic moments the confusion and loss of innocence that the war in Lebanon forced upon the two girls, prematurely robbing them of their childhood. In recreating the difficulty of retrieving the past through narrative, the novel also suggests that such narrative recollection may nonetheless be the only possibility for healing and recovery.

Patricia Sarrafian Ward has done a superb job of illustrating the destructive reverberations of the war in Lebanon. At the same time, she suggests the possibilities for renewal for her characters, as symbolized by fresh snow as well as Marianna's image of a winged horse, elevating her spirits and redeeming her memory of a dead horse she once saw lying in the streets of Beirut.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45 (Fall 2003).

Copyright (c) 2003 by Al Jadid