In this debut novel, British Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh creates a family from Gaza which reflects all the stresses, conflicts, and competing philosophies endemic to that world, a small strip of land along the Mediterranean coast in the westernmost corner of Israel, bordering Egypt. Main character Rashid Mujahed, the second son of his family, lives with his mother, twin sister Iman, and older brother Sabri, and though the family is well enough off to be able to travel abroad, they are firmly linked to Gaza, their home, at least for now. Despite the frantic activity going on around him in Gaza, with many political movements arising and competing with each other, he despairs of much change and has applied for graduate school in London.
Sabri, Rashid's older brother, lost both legs fifteen years ago in an explosion during the First Intifadah, and he now spends his time documenting the never-ending attacks on Gaza and the horrors he observes from his wheelchair at the second floor window of his house. Also living at home is Rashid's twin sister Iman, a quiet teacher who has studied in Switzerland. While she has no interest in taking dramatic action against Israel, she responds when a female friend offers her an opportunity to do something important, only to panic when she barely escapes an explosion that kills an important member of the PLO. Their father Jibril, out of favor with the PLO, has escaped to one of the Gulf countries, while back in Gaza, the mother of the family manages the household. She has secrets, kept even from her own family.
However interesting and important Part I in Gaza is, the novel seems to be going in many different directions in this section, and it becomes difficult to keep track of who is a member of which party or faction, especially when the characters move in and out of various groups, a confusion which may parallel that of Gaza itself. Part II, set in London, becomes much livelier and even satiric. Rashid is attending university and working with a British researcher. His dinner meeting with girlfriend Lisa's family and a description of the behavior of a man assigned to the British Foreign Office provide bits of dark humor as they illuminate cultural differences, and this tone continues when Iman, in Part III, travels to live with her father and his new wife in the Gulf. Eventually, Rashid and Iman unearth their mother's secrets and discover the cyclic nature of resistance. The novel comes full circle with their return to Gaza months later, and the conclusion forms a well drawn coda to the complicated Gaza setting.
By showing the action through members of a single family with differing points of view, the author makes many issues come alive in new ways and shows how they affect family dynamics. And though the issues and the different political factions attempting to deal with them are sometimes a bit muddled for those of us who are not already familiar with all the various groups in Gaza, Dabbagh's focus is clearly on those issues. We come to know the characters within the limits of their points of view, and they and their fates become part of the message rather than ends in themselves. The novel is enlightening and often entertaining, descriptive and often memorable, and exciting but often horrific, with no suggestions that any solution is forthcoming.