The Desmond Elliott shortlist has gotten off to an incredibly good start. Thus far I've read Edward Hogan's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Blackmoor (which is settling in my mind before I write about it) and Nathalie Abi-Ezzi's excellent long-form debut A Girl Made of Dust. I couldn't have asked for two more striking and ambitious novels. Both are predicated on a world composed equally of incredible violence and blessed grace. I think they both go some way to capturing that essential contradiction of our universal nature: that we hurt and even kill each other out of love. And they both do it with such compassion. In this sense they are 'big' novels, though relatively modest in terms of page count.
A Girl Made of Dust is set in Lebanon in the early 1980s, in a town in the hills above Beirut, at the height of the civil war that tore the country apart between 1975 and 1990. Its soundtrack is a horrendous cacophony of bombardment, shelling and screaming, at first in the distant capital and then increasingly closer and closer. At its centre is a family stubbornly clinging to their lives, suffering, as all families do, because of national tragedies and everyday griefs alike. Our narrator is Ruba, a young girl of maybe eight or nine years old, who tells us the story of the loss of her own innocence in a voice both hardened to terror and utterly naive. Through her we meet her parents - Nabeel and Aida Khouri - her older brother Naji, her Teta (grandmother) and mysterious Uncle Wadih, as well as a handful of other adults and children who make up her circle of acquaintance. Her mother's wealthy, haughty friend Juhaina and Ali, the crippled Muslim who roasts nuts for the local sweetseller, are just two particularly striking examples in a carefully delineated community.
As the novel opens Ruba is at that utterly guileless stage of childhood, when you begin to wonder why and how things happen but the answers that suggest themselves to you are wild and superstitious. Thus she believes that her Papi's depression - Nabeel Khouri has been slumped in his chair for as long as she remembers - is the result of a curse, cast by the witch who lives in the old house on the hill. Magic is the only possible explanation for such adult behaviour. The old glass eye she finds in the forest near their home is a talisman that has the power to free him. At the same time, and with the ironic, literal-minded insight of a nine year old, she cannot see how the little plastic Virgin Mary her Teta keeps on her dressing table could possibly be the mother of God. When it is suggested to her that the Virgin protects her from harm she shrugs it off:
She was really only a bottle filled with holy water that you could see if you unscrewed her crown and I didn't see how she could have saved me... I didn't really want to hear about the Virgin Mary unless Teta put her into a story and made her do something exciting like swim out to sea, or play hide and seek with God, or dig a tunnel all the way to Beirut and live in it.
The world of a child is complex in ways that an adult could never understand, and vice-a-versa. While Ruba's parents listen to the news of an Israeli invasion on the radio, celebrate the election of a new president and then mourn his assasination, all the while looking up at the Israeli and Syrian fighter planes roaring overhead with fear, Ruba has more important things on her mind. How will she release her father from his curse, for example? Why is her friend Karim different from everyone else at school? Who is the disquieting new girl, Amal, and why is she mute? A Girl Made of Dust articulates very well the mysteries of alternate perceptions. And Abbi-Ezzi does it, most impressively, without turning her tale on one single misapprehension between adult and child (as in, for example, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men) but showing through the tiniest subtleties how we all perceive our own peculiar world.
If Ruba consciously thinks of the civil war going on around her at all, it is in relation to her brother Naji. He is increasingly disaffected by his father's pathetic inertia, and obsessed with collecting the spent shells of the militias who roam the forests. Ruba likes them too because 'I liked to weigh them in my hands, like large beads, or line them up end to end, or fit the smaller ones into the larger ones, if they were empty, or clink them together.' She domesticates them into toys, ornaments or beads like the ones her father constantly worries during his long chair vigils. She has very little conception of them as weapons, or at least not in a way she can articulate. The conflict is so natural in her eyes; the shells have been screeching overahead her whole life, like particularly noisy birds. When men go by in the street in their jeeps, firing their machine guns in the air she doesn't even flinch. She cannot know that the world is turned upside down when it has never been any other way. Similarly, she cannot express horror or hurt at the cruel death of people or animals, since it appears an inevitable part of life. True, she knows she would prefer if a parachute appeared from a plane going down; she would prefer that the older children did not tie birds to posts for the cats to eat; and certainly she knows it is upsetting for men to be dragged to death behind speeding cars. But she cannot say these things are cruel, or injust, or torturous. Her body reacts physically - she is struck dumb, paralysed, frightened - but her mind cannot rationalise or moralise it. Abi-Ezzi seems to capture perfectly the terrifying extents and limits of a child's compassion, of their sense of right and wrong.
I don't want to give the wrong impression that this is a novel about the horrors of the Lebanese civil war. Because Ruba is our window into the world we only ever catch sideways glimpses of its atrocities (although our adult minds, schooled by increasingly gory news bulletins, fill in the blank spaces). The domesticity of her mother's cooking and her grandmother's household chores are more real and solid for her, and so form the backbone of her narrative. A Girl Made of Dust is full of the warmth of baking bread, of the scent of herbs and spices mixed, of the sound of laundry pounded and plants lovingly tended. The novel opens, for example, with a scene so perfect it could be a memory. Ruba and her Teta are folding clothes fresh from the washing line 'that were stiff and bent in strange shapes from the sun.' Ruba struggles with a pair of trousers that 'didn't want to be made small', while 'Teta's hands were slow and heavy, and things obeyed them.' It is an incredibly comforting, soft beginning to a novel about civilian life in wartime, and it sets the tone for what follows: Ruba's family and their homelife is like a pair of warm arms encircling the story. Even when, by the end, they are reduced to huddling in their inner corridor as the bombs shake their house, there is still food and stories and mattresses to protect them from the outside. In its way the novel is a paean to the comforts of a home.
Which is not to say that the Khouri family isn't troubled from within. Ruba's house is not an entirely safe haven. Nabeel's depression, Naji's burgeoning militarism, Teta's dark dreams and Uncle Wadih's nefarious business dealings also run like threads through the novel. But there is something mitigating in the clack of knitting needles, and the kneading of dough, that reassures us of the essential heartspace of a family. There is a cliche hiding in it, which like all cliches is entirely true: what does not destroy us, makes us stronger. Ruba's family is well and truly tested by the conflict in Lebanon, but it reaffirms their determined love and compassion for one another.
Throughout Nathalie Abi-Ezzi writes within a strict emotional register, which makes for prose passages and dialogue stunning in their restraint. In the interview conducted with her at the back of the book, she admits that A Girl Made of Dust was a longer novel, but that she ruthlessly cut scenes that seemed unnecessary or which could be made more powerful by oblique references. You can see some of the scars where she has worked holes into the novel, in the same way that you can occasionally spot the editor's hand when watching a movie. But in each case she has made a judicious choice: to show us, not to tell us. More importantly, perhaps, she has excised all parts of the novel that Ruba could not have understood, or would not have considered important. A child narrator is a tricky ask, but Abi-Ezzi handles it deftly. Ruba only tells us so much; the rest we infere through her creator's skill. The voice, too, is lovely. It is eccentric like a child's voice is sometimes eccentric, but not cloying or affected. Ruba occasionally describes something in a perfectly memorable and entirely unadult way; the August sun, for example, 'shone like Jesus'. But she neither speaks beyond her years, nor like a puppet. I would most definitely recommend spending some time with her.