Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa

3/5 stars

You know when you really, really want to love a book, but it just can’t happen?

Susan Abulhawa has made a career of literature that focuses on Palestine and its diaspora, and Against the Loveless World follows this same path, telling the story of Nahr, a Palestinian woman brought up in Kuwait and learning about her identity and the impact of resistance in the midst of the Gulf War. It’s an ambitious story, illuminating a perspective and era of history that hasn’t gotten much attention in media.

In short, I really wanted to like this–and Abulhawa is a talented writer, with evocative descriptions and a lyrical voice. My main problem is that this book is slowwwww. The story spans decades, and is told through a frame story of Nahr’s time in prison–but there just isn’t enough of a hook here to keep the reader engaged and find out why she’s in prison. There are a lot of secondary characters throughout Nahr’s life as she journeys from Kuwait to Jordan to Palestine, but each of these could be its own book. Personally, my favourite section was Nahr’s time in Kuwait, when being a second-class citizen and having a brother poised for university education leads her to sex work and some morally grey decisions–a bit of an early-90s Hustlers, with the added stakes of the looming Iraqi invasion.

And then it… fizzles out. The rest of the novel focuses on Nahr’s somewhat bland journey into the Palestinian resistance, which hits a lot of the same beats as other women-in-the-resistance narratives (of course, there is a dreamboat radical boyfriend). I wanted this to say something more substantial, especially with the frame story of Nahr in an Israeli prison and meeting with international journalists, hesitant to tell her story. Instead, this fell woefully flat.

I’d be eager to read more of Abulhawa’s work to see if this was just a late-career slump, but when it comes to this one, it certainly reads pretty, but it doesn’t say much of substance at all.

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