A Review of ‘Out of It,’ Selma Dabbagh’s Debut Novel

From my review in the Egypt Independent:

In her debut novel, British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh has set herself a very difficult task. “Out of It,” published by Bloomsbury UK, is a realist work that aims to portray life in Gaza justly and honestly. But the novel also works hard to be a fun and widely accessible read.

Dabbagh’s portrayal of Gaza is, in some ways, not so different from the gaping wound that Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish presents in his “Journal of an Ordinary Grief.” In Darwish’s 1973 prose-poetic work, he writes, “Gaza has not mastered the orator’s art. Gaza does not have a throat. The pores of her skin speak in sweat, blood and fire.”

In Dabbagh’s “Out of It,” Gaza also struggles to articulate its vision, and speaks in sweat, blood and fire. The landscape is broken down, muddy, concrete and ugly. But Dabbagh’s novel is not just a raw depiction of pain and struggle, legless men and powerless committees. It also has central characters that are appealing, savvy young people who smoke pot, have sex, crack jokes, doubt themselves and hurtle through the novel’s fast-paced action.

“Out of It” is thus a Gaza story that’s situated — either by chance or design — to attract the sympathy of a broad section of the English-reading public. The two main characters, twin siblings Rashid and Iman, are native Palestinians. But they are also outsider-insiders who have lived much of their lives abroad. As such, they are poised to “translate” Gaza for a culturally Western audience.

Rashid and Iman are largely trapped inside Gaza, but they are also children of Palestine’s “Outside Leadership.” The novel’s action takes Rashid and Iman to England, and both have relationships with Brits. The siblings are easy for a British public to relate to because neither is particularly religious. And, while Iman is passionate about her country, she doesn’t have a formulaic political vision. Both sister and brother are feeling their way through the landscape, trying somehow to find their role and their happiness.

“Out of It” thus opens itself easily to the non-Palestinian reader. But, at times, the book’s accessibility and honesty are muddled by its rapid pace. The action moves so briskly that it’s difficult to follow the major shifts in characters’ behaviors and motives. Early on, Iman briefly decides to go on a suicide mission, spurred by the sight of loved ones’ charred bodies. But the action moves so quickly — she dashes in and out of the hospital; she spends a few moments with the family; she plunges into her decision — that the reader doesn’t get the full emotional impact. Go on; keep reading. 

More: A discussion between Maggie Gee and Selma Dabbagh.

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