Writing literary fiction with a child's point-of-view is not a job for the faint-hearted; to construct a compelling narrative with only a linguistically-limited and innocent voice as a conduit is a daunting challenge, one which few novelists have taken up and still fewer pulled off successfully. Yet Nathalie Abi-Ezzi's exquisitely affecting debut novel, A Girl Made of Dust, not only conjures a fully-realized and vividly-populated world via the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, but adroitly plays on her ingenuousness to subtly convey its themes, namely the senselessness of religious conflict and the elusive importance of responsibility and forgiveness.
Set in civil war-torn Lebanon in the early 1980s, A Girl Made of Dust is the story of Ruba Khouri, who lives in a Christian village outside Beirut with her family: Naji, her beloved older brother who collects shell and bullet casings and is fascinated by the fighter planes roaring overhead; her careworn mother, Aida, who tries to keep the household safe with marathon cleaning and baking sessions; Teta, her doting grandmother who dreams of death and relies upon a plastic figure of the Virgin Mary for protection; and her father, Nabeel, whose paralyzing depression, triggered by a trauma no one will talk about, worries his daughter far more than the bombs that rumble in the distance–even as, with the bloody rhythm of attacks and retaliations escalating, that distance is shrinking more each day.
For Ruba, though, war is merely business as usual; she entertains no fantasies of experiencing peace. When her teacher joins the exodus of people fleeing the country and goes back to her native Scotland, where “she says there's no shelling,” Ruba reflects: “I tried to imagine what it would be like, but couldn't.” On the other hand, she remembers–faintly, but surely–a time when her father was a different person, when he worked and went to church and paid attention to her instead of just sitting in a chair, staring into space and fiddling with his worry beads. Ruba's quest to discover what happened to her father, so that she can fix it and the family can be happy again, is her guiding preoccupation and the page-turningly suspenseful center of the novel.
Not that her father's psychological state is the only puzzle that Ruba is faced with. On the contrary, intriguing questions abound. What exactly is suave Uncle Wadih up to with his secretive business dealings, and why has he never married? Why doesn't Amal, the new girl at school, ever speak? Is Amal's grandmother really a witch who cursed Ruba's father? And most importantly, will the magic eye that Ruba found in the forest help break the curse? Just as our young heroine's natural ignorance of the adults' debates on the comparative brutalities and justifications of the Israelis and the Palestinians, of the shifting allegiances of foreign and home-grown militias, enables Abi-Ezzi to portray the inhumanity of the violence that devastated Lebanon without a tub-thumping agenda, so it is that Ruba's faith in magic lures the reader into a childlike state of enchantment. Then, as unexpected connections between her mysteries are gradually revealed, we discover that a constellation of old decisions, grudges, and heartbreaks are shaping characters' lives with the same kind of ripple effect as war itself, which, Ruba's neighbor insists, is “a cycle, like the seasons,” with one disaster begetting the next.
Based on the author's memories of growing up in Lebanon, where she lived until she was eleven, A Girl Made of Dust is equally gripping as a poignant family drama and as a visceral depiction of living with war literally crashing on your doorstep. The local sounds, smells and sights are astonishingly well-rendered, with transportingly-textured details that nevertheless are wholly convincing as the impressions of a young child. A bomb-scarred apartment block appears to have been “burrowed into by giant mice that had left a million holes and hollowed out the centre, until the building was nothing but a thin crust of shell with rain-stained walls”; the onset of fall meant that “leaves were turning yellow, and humidity built up during the day until steam rose from the sea in the afternoons that made the air thick and rubbed out Beirut so that only its ghost-lines were left.”
When we reluctantly take leave of the Khouris, the fighting has reached a fever pitch and they're sheltering with their friends in the corridor of the house, with shutters bolted and windows shattering. The cycle of war will continue–for, as we know, the entire remainder of the decade until Beirut is practically “rubbed out”–but the novel concludes on a note of hope with Ruba winning her heart's desire: the return of her father from his personal hell. As it turns out, what sent him there is much sadder and more earthly than a witch's curse; still, we are as gratified as Ruba to witness that, in contrast to the worst human impulses that create wars, the best can be harnessed in order that “spells, no matter what sort they were, could be broken.”
A Girl Made of Dust is published by Grove Press.
Emma Garman is a writer living in New York. She can be visited online at emmagarman.com.