Susan Abulhawa’s ambitious, uneven second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, recounts the lives of four generations of a Palestinian family displaced by the nakba, or “catastrophe”, of 1948. Her narrative, filled with supernatural events and characters with uncanny powers, explores the nature of collective trauma and the role family plays in blunting its most destructive consequences.
Abulhawa, who is Palestinian by birth and now lives in America, starts her story of the Baraka family of Beit Daras in 1947. The matriarch, Um Mamdouh, is possessed by a djinn, Sulayman, who makes her skin smell of soot and foresees the “treacherous plans” of the Israelis. “Native blood will pour from these hills,” says Sulayman, but “this land will rise again”.
Um Mamdouh’s youngest daughter also has weird talents: she can see auras and read people’s moods and characters from them. With these magical realist techniques, in the tradition of Toni Morrison and many postcolonial novelists, Abulhawa seeks to convey the extremity of what her characters experience at the moment of dispossession: gang rape, burning homes, the killing of siblings. When the Israeli soldiers shoot Um Mamdouh, who is carrying her wounded son en route to Gaza, she incinerates them with a glance: “Their bones turned to froth, their hearts to ice, and their faces ashened before they burst into flames, writhed, and burned.”
While the use of fantasy elements is initially promising, a means of illuminating the villagers’ imaginative world, Abulhawa’s writing lacks the eloquence and nuance needed to carry it off. In her hands, the djinn and the auras serve only to create an exoticised picture of Palestinian life during that fatal moment of history, while the overwrought prose distances the reader from her characters’ suffering. It is never just night in these pages; instead there is “a canopy of stars”. In one scene that should be taut with suspense and contained rage, Abulhawa resorts to bellowing capitals.
After Israeli forces lay siege to their village, what is left of the Baraka family struggles to rebuild a life in Gaza. The surviving daughter, Nazmiyeh, is haunted by memories of her younger sister; she bears child after child in hopes of a daughter to resurrect the dead girl’s spirit, while her husband and sons go fishing to earn a living. Like so many Palestinian families, the Barakas are eventually scattered across the world, and the novel weaves in the story of Nur, the granddaughter of Nazmiyeh’s brother, who is being raised in the US by foster carers.
Bar one soldier who gives a little girl a stick of gum at a checkpoint, the Israelis who briefly pass through the story are caricatures of implacable evil. While it is easy to dehumanise the aggressor in a historical episode as stark as the nakba, it is striking that Abulhawa never allows her characters to wonder what is driving the Israelis to brutalise them. More than anything else in the book, this feels like a missed opportunity. Compare Elias Khoury’s (far superior) Gate of the Sun (2005), in which one Palestinian character unforgettably asks another, “in the faces of those people [Israeli settlers] being driven to slaughter, didn’t you see something resembling your own?”
The novel picks up pace in its later, more realist sections, where Nur, now a psychotherapist in North Carolina, falls in love with a Palestinian doctor and follows him back to Gaza, rather implausibly landing in the lap of the family she has long been estranged from. Abulhawa’s strengths come to the fore here as Nur faces the task of reviving her semi-comatose cousin Khaled from his “place of blue”.
While Abulhawa’s Gaza still lacks the gritty intimacy of, say, Selma Dabbagh’s extraordinary 2011 novel Out of It, her depictions of how the Baraka family and the other displaced villagers find dignity and warmth through daily rituals in this “new, misshapen fate” are moving. She is a fine observer of female kinship, rendering with skill the way erotic humour can serve as a bonding glue across generations and even as a form of defiance. When the independent Nur’s ill-fated love affair with the doctor brings about a clash with her traditional relatives, Abulhawa finally drops the perfumed prose, and writes with a biting confidence: “This is not America where everyone fucks whoever they want whenever they want because it’s fun. This is Gaza. This is an Islamic place.”
The Blue Between Sky and Water delivers, in snatches, a powerful read; its excesses are frequent, but the story that emerges is compelling — a story of Gaza struggling to move into the future, with its imagination haunted but its vitality undiminished.
The Blue Between Sky and Water, by Susan Abulhawa, Bloomsbury, RRP£16.99, 304 pages, To be published in the US in September