Review: Alawiya Sobh’s Feminist Frisson in ‘Maryam, Keeper of Stories’

A slightly truncated version of this review ran in The National, as I turned it in at the wrong length:

maryam“The war silenced me,” Lebanese novelist Alawiya Sobh said in 2010, of her country’s fifteen-year civil war. It took the novel Maryam al-Hakaya (Maryam: Keeper of Stories) to help Sobh recover her voice. Or rather, “I invented Maryam to tell the story for me.”

Sobh, born in 1955, had long been established as a journalist, poet, editor, and short-story writer. But she didn’t release her debut novel, Maryam: Keeper of Stories, until 2002, twelve years after the war’s end. It’s now been translated into English by Nirvana Tanoukhi.

Maryam’s conceit is compelling, if at times over-explained. The novelist “Alawiyya” is turned into a background character while Maryam pushes her way to the foreground. Maryam complains that, after so many interviews with real and imagined people, Alawiyya never collected her stories into a book. As the novel opens, Maryam has grown impatient: Is Alawiyya ever going to get it together?

Apparently not, because Maryam elbows the author out of the way and tells the stories herself: of her own life, her relatives, her friend Ibtisam, and occasionally Alawiya.

This novel doesn’t just tackle the content of Lebanese women’s lives. Its form—1,001 Nights-esque, interlinked tales—is also womanish. The action doesn’t follow the forward-marching masculine world of politics and business. Even when women protest or pick up weapons, the narrative stays focused on the circularity of relationships. The book also gives respectful attention to village superstitions, soap operas, and other “low” genres associated with women.

Maryam is thus like Elena Ferrante’s globally popular Neapolitan novels in that it places women’s friendships at its center. Although Maryam’s women do have romantic (and unromantic) ties with men, it’s the relationships between women—particularly Maryam and Ibtisam—that give the book its frisson.

Mother-daughter relationships are also central. Rather than being victims or saints, the mothers here are all too human. Maryam’s mother is taken into marriage against her will, but she learns to fight back against her older husband in a hundred ways. For instance, she finds that one effective weapon against her husband’s sexual aggression is a well-placed fart. The book has a wonderfully vulgar sense of humor, which only occasionally falls flat in translation, as when the phrase “no meaning” is too literally brought into English.

Aside from the occasional joke that doesn’t come off, the translation is clear and bright. It deals deftly with Sobh’s bursts of poetry, as when a dreaming character is struggling to get out of a coffin, “to free the birds in her eyes.”

Maryam’s mother gets some of the best lines. During pregnancy, she tells her impatient husband: “If there were a light inside my belly and I could look up my hole, I would check for you if it’s a boy or a girl and let you know!” Also, when Maryam’s mother would run after her daughters to hit them, “she would say in her heart: ‘May God, the Prophet and the angels guard you. May God’s name protect you,’ so they would not be hurt.”

Keep reading at The National.