Dark, beautiful exploration of the human psyche: a new novel by Adania Shibli

If her first novel, Touch, wasn’t evidence enough, Adania Shibli’s second book We Are All Equally Far From Love confirms her as a rare, challenging talent. It is neither an easy nor always a pleasant read, but it is an extraordinary piece of writing which weaves together melancholia, beauty, violence and brutish physicality in an extended meditation on love and loneliness.

To an even greater degree than Touch, this is only a novel in the most tenuous sense. It has no conventional narrative or plot; the short stories or vignettes could almost be unrelated except for the occasional hinted-at overlap. One unlikeable but victimized character’s name, for instance, reappears in a casual conversation several tales on, revealing that she has committed suicide.

Some references are even less tangible; is the walnut tree overhanging a wall which one character walks past the same walnut tree which grows in another’s garden? The reader must constantly wonder about the connections between the people in these tales, whether they represent multiple facets of one community or are disconnected, except by their experience of pain. Where the stories take place is also ambiguous; just one tale refers to this, noting a character’s job in a post office involves dealing with “letters addressed to … ‘Palestine,’ which she had to erase and replace with ‘Israel,’” (20). A note on the character’s family says that “despite the fact that her grandfather had been a revolutionary, and had been killed in 1948, her father was a collaborator” (10).

The predominant mood of We Are All Equally Far From Love is not a cheerful one. For one character, “everything in my life was monotonous. I no longer cared about anything … Everything was heading towards death, with nothing to stop it” (3,9). Another laments his life as a “loser,” hiding his failures from his family. For others, the disconnection spills over into violence, whether fantasy — “I would kill her. Without killing my father. So that he would be as miserable as he’d made me … She had always been like that, my mother. Any mark that I left behind would drive her to the verge of wishing she’d never given birth to me” (94, 98) — or real, a father casually hurling his shoe at his daughter’s head as she answers him back.

Most chillingly, a campaign of harassment by a jilted lover culminates in his answering machine message: “His voice was calm, deep, clear, and perhaps smiling … He was saying that he was going to rape her, and then added in a deeper voice that this was the only thing that would satisfy his lust” (76).

Startling realities

As with her first novel, Shibli’s sharp observation of small physical details gives startling, at times repugnant, reality to her characters’ world. A sick woman wallows in the growing stink of her body and of drying vomit on the floor, mirroring the moral and emotional corruption of her fragmented family (103), while the “squeaking of her wet feet in her plastic sandals filled my ears. The sound reminded me of the sound made during intercourse, which made me take the idea of masturbation off the day’s agenda” reflects the ambivalent status of sex in Shibli’s world (99).

This painfully exact depiction extends to the internal world, acknowledging some of the shameful thoughts and feelings which often go along with emotional turmoil, from the raw admission of “it was then that I discovered that I was seeing everything in order to write about it to him” (1) to the coldness of a woman trying to disentangle herself from an unwanted affair: “She liked her encounters to be like furtive spring matings” (71).

What makes this near-continuous litany of depression and melancholy bearable and sharpens its impact, are the occasional flashes of beauty which punctuate the grimness. One woman waxes lyrical at the brief moment of love she is blessed by: “for her, the sun itself was new. To love, to go to sleep and wake up again, and still be in love. To bathe and love, to cook and love. To drive the car and love” (33). A besotted man says of his lover that “her back had been like an apricot at the height of summer” (62) and even one of the most frightening events of the book takes place in the setting of “a warm night and thick darkness, especially behind the olive trees” (77).

Wry wit

Shibli’s other device for avoiding overwhelming misery is her wry wit, most often aimed — as befits a book whose honesty is so brutally complete — at anything which smacks of shallowness and fakery. On the wall of a post office she describes “a picture of the head of state, which was not as dirty as the flag, as democracy forced them to change it from time to time” (19). Of the same postal service: “It was quite normal for the locals’ letters to arrive opened. If a letter arrived unopened, they explained it as being due to the existence of a stick of glue in the post office, which would soon run out” (20). Of young men seeking out brides, she observes that “hand in hand, he and his prey would begin their endless journey into boredom” (18), while in a devastating portrait of a family living in mutual hostility, she describes “the forest of unused furniture with which my sister-in-law had filled her world” (112).

In the hands of a less talented writer than Shibli and a less skilled translator than Paul Starkey, this book could have become an angst-ridden dirge. But with its deft handling of beauty and humor alongside pain and isolation, its multi-colored tones and shifting moods, it becomes a dark, difficult, exhausting but ultimately cathartic exploration of the depths of the human psyche.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.