When Bea opens a package from an old acquaintance—full of letters and poems—it sends her back to the months she spent in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (probably Damascus, Syria), learning Arabic and getting tangled up in the lives of her host family and their maid. A Word for Love, by Emily Robbins, is a poetic exploration of love, loss, language, betrayal, and tragedy as seen through the eyes of an American student who abruptly realizes that the consequences of mistakes are much more serious outside of the United States.
All Bea wanted was to learn enough Arabic to read “the astonishing text,” a medieval poem that makes everyone who reads it cry. But when she arrives in the unnamed city, she finds bureaucracy stalling her at every point. The librarians won’t retrieve the manuscript from their closed stacks. (A practice that offends me deeply, being an American librarian.) The university won’t respond to her application. It’s fortunate that Bea has a caring host family to take care of her. Madame constantly gives her advice about getting ahead and attracting a boy. Baba watches over her with a paternal eye. The family’s children are like siblings for only-child Bea. The Indonesian maid, Nisrine, takes care of the household and the food for all of them.
The family adopts Bea so fully that it would have been impossible for the American to avoid worrying about them, especially since Baba is still involved with the anti-government resistance in spite of the years he spent in prison. This would have been enough to hook me into the story, I think, but the love that develops between Nisrine and a policeman-poet named Adel quickly takes center stage. At first, Bea though Adel was interested in her. When she is disappointed to learn that Nisrine is the object of Adel’s affection, she becomes a somewhat reluctant accomplice for the star-crossed lover.
The fact that the two are physically and politically divided calls to mind Romeo and Juliet. The frequent foreshadowing of tragedy makes the association stronger, but A Word for Love harks back to an older tradition: courtly love. The two have very few chances to actually speak to each other. For most of their short relationship, they have to make do with waving and stolen glances across the street that separates Baba’s apartment and the police station. Adel has poetry to express himself and he is often given to thinking in images straight out of a medieval poem (or Romeo and Juliet):
[Adel] watched her veil, the way it swept down over her forehead, caressed beneath her chin. What if I were that veil? he thought. What if I lived there, in the folds beside her cheek, where I could always reach her neck, always kiss her skin? (n.p.*)
Nisrine has no such outlet. Instead, she grows distracted, aggravating Madame and threatening her position in the household.
One could argue that Adel and Nisrine are more in love with the idea of each other than the real person. They’ve barely spoken to each other, after all, and have never spent time together. But this doesn’t seem to stop them from developing an extraordinary depth of feeling for and dependence on hope that Adel can somehow rescue them from their hopeless situation. Throughout A Word for Love, Bea makes constant reference to “the astonishing text,” which tells the story of the courtly love between a poet, Qais, and his love, Leila. The two characters never managed to be together because Qais, apparently, is not a man of action. It’s not hard to draw parallels between that story and what’s happening with Nisrine and Adel.
If A Word for Love were a different kind of story, I would be hollering for Nisrine to rescue herself. But I always knew this story was going to be a tragedy, even without all the foreshadowing and the astonishing text. While most of the book is about love, especially love that can grow on even the shakiest of ground, I think this book is more about loss and learning to go on after disappointment and broken hopes. The book reminds us that we were all young and foolish and felt too much once, but some kind of life can continue after we’ve been battered and bruised, even if things aren’t as bright and hopeful as they used to be.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 17 January 2017.
* Quote is from the advanced reader copy from Riverhead Books. It is not paginated.