Book Review: In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

inthelanguageofmiraclesIn the Language of Miracles

Rajia Hassib

4.5/5 Stars

Release Date: August 11, 2015

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)

Purchase: Amazon | Book Depository | Chapters/Indigo.ca | B&N | Kobo

Synopsis on Goodreads:

A mesmerizing debut novel of an Egyptian American family and the wrenching tragedy that tears their lives apart.

Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy appear to have attained the American dream. After immigrating to the United States from Egypt, Samir successfully works his way through a residency and launches his own medical practice as Nagla tends to their firstborn, Hosaam, in the cramped quarters of a small apartment. Soon the growing family moves into a big house in the manicured New Jersey suburb of Summerset, where their three children eventually attend school with Natalie Bradstreet, the daughter of their neighbors and best friends. More than a decade later, the family’s seemingly stable life is suddenly upended when a devastating turn of events leaves Hosaam and Natalie dead and turns the Al-Menshawys into outcasts in their own town.

Narrated a year after Hosaam and Natalie’s deaths, Rajia Hassib’s heartfelt novel follows the Al-Menshawys during the five days leading up to the memorial service that the Bradstreets have organized to mark the one-year anniversary of their daughter’s death. While Nagla strives to understand her role in the tragedy and Samir desperately seeks reconciliation with the community, Khaled, their surviving son, finds himself living in the shadow of his troubled brother. Struggling under the guilt and pressure of being the good son, Khaled turns to the city in hopes of finding happiness away from the painful memories home conjures. Yet he is repeatedly pulled back home to his grandmother, Ehsan, who arrives from Egypt armed with incense, prayers, and an unyielding determination to stop the unraveling of her daughter’s family. In Ehsan, Khaled finds either a true hope of salvation or the embodiment of everything he must flee if he is ever to find himself.

Writing with unflinchingly honest prose, Rajia Hassib tells the story of one family pushed to the brink by tragedy and mental illness, trying to salvage the life they worked so hard to achieve. The graceful, elegiac voice of In the Language of Miracles paints tender portraits of a family’s struggle to move on in the wake of heartbreak, to stay true to its traditions, and above all else, to find acceptance and reconciliation.

Review:

With her debut novel, Rajia Hassib takes us on the journey of an Egyptian American family struggling to get over a family tragedy and how they’re confronting it one year later. I loved the format of a five day timeline because it allowed for the little details to be noticed. The characters were all interesting in how they dealt with their grief, and especially the sort of things they noticed a year later. This novel tells an important message: not all miracles require divine intervention and if the ending result is not what you expected, perhaps it was not what you needed.

The Al-Menshawy family’s eldest son, Hosaam and their neighbour’s daughter Natalie Bradstreet died one year before the novel begins and previous emotions are brought to the surface when their neighbours decide to hold a one-year memorial service for Natalie. As I said, the book is set up in a five day timeline, among flashbacks from the characters. The reader gets to enter the minds of Samir, Nagla and their younger son, Khaled and all three prove to be very different and complex characters.

For Samir, the American Dream is a very important goal because after all, he uproots his family in order to give them a better life in America. With this tragedy, the American Dream starts to crack and we see how that effects Samir on a very emotional level. He’s the type of person to care what others think of him and his family, and when his son suggests moving to a town that doesn’t ostracize them, he’s appalled. Samir considers this to be a cowardly thing and so he’s determined to fix the way the town views his family.

Nagla starts to ask herself all these ‘what if?’ questions. She thinks back on the year before the tragic event and for the first time notices things about her son that she originally brushed off. After graduating from high school and becoming distant from his friends, Hosaam had isolated himself in the attic, playing music all the time and not wanting the life his father set out for him. Nagla regrets her actions, or lack of and see’s her son for the first time in a new light. This is all brought on by coming up to the attic to go through her son’s things, which had remained untouched for the last year. With her mother’s encouragement, she begins that next step in overcoming grief because the fact is if we wait until we’re ready, we’d never take the next step.

It was Khaled’s voice that stood out the most. He feels the weight of his brother’s shadow and just wants to be anonymous. Khaled deletes his Facebook account, but later on creates a blog using only his initials K.A. It gets to the point where this blog is an important aspect of his life; with it he feels free and I really connected with that aspect. For me, blogging about books and being social in the book community is a really positive aspect of my life. I could understand Khaled’s feelings. It’s through this blog that Khaled meets Brittany and he’s absolutely terrified that she’ll find out about his brother. So much so, that for a time he won’t tell her what the K stands for. Later on, he relents and tells her because he decides there’s probably a lot of Khaled’s in New York – though he does consider giving her a different name. I could feel Khaled’s fear on a very in-depth level, and I think losing this new friend would also register on the same level as losing a loved one. Khaled is a very well-written character and above all my favourite!

There wasn’t as much dialogue as I expected, so I was slightly thrown off. I did recognize the format from The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker so it wasn’t a completely new thing, but I did like it better in The Golem and the Jinni than this book. However, this did leave lots of room for the characters to reflect and as a reader, I was fully and completely in their heads. This novel wants you to notice the details and I can agree this is an important device.

I loved that at the beginning of each chapter was an english quote and an equivalent translated from arabic. I’ve included my favourite ones below:

English: Birds of a feather flock together

Arabic: Birds fall upon those similar to them (chapter 5)

English: Rest in peace

Arabic: Death is rest (chapter 17)

English: If your house is made of glass, do not throw stones at others.

Arabic: He whose house is made of glass should not throw stones at others. (chapter 18)

As you can see, for some of these the message remains virtually the same while for others, one or two words are different and the message seems to change completely. I felt including these quotes seemed almost like a foreshadowing or indirect message about how the Al-Menshawy family grieves compared to the Bradstreets. Some practices remain the same while others are entirely different. This can also be applied to the individual family members of the Al-Menshawy household. All have experienced the same tragedy, but the way they deal with their grief is completely different as well as the way they intend to move forward.

When Nagla’s mother, Ehsan hears about the Bradstreets having a memorial service for Natalie, she encourages the family to do similar things for Hosaam. Through Ehsan, the reader learns about arabic funeral practices. My favourite would have to be the wailing woman, a woman – a complete stranger – is hired to attend a funeral and wail throughout the service! Then she has the family making shoreik, a pastry meant to bring mercy to the dead, which of course made me very hungry! I’d love for Ehsan to come to my house and bake all the delicious foods she makes in the novel because they all sounded amazing.

Surprisingly, the ending was not what I expected, but I agree with the way Hassib chose to end it. It fit better with the overall message. Hassib is an exceptional storyteller of complex characters and I’m excited for her next project! In the Language of Miracles is a narrative of human emotion and succeeds in giving a comprehensive account of a family trying to overcome grief.

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