A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib

After her sister is killed by a suicide bomber in Cairo, Rose uses her skills as an archaeologist to do the only thing that might help her grieve: figure out how her sister came to be in that place at that time. In A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib, perspectives shift between Rose, her sister Gameela, Rose’s husband Mark, and a few others to answer that question. This premise blossoms over the course of the book to look at troubled family relationships, religion, and the way that we all show different parts of ourselves to the people in our lives.

Gameela is the religious one in her family of middle-class Cairenes. Unlike her sister and mother, she wears a hijab. Her piety creates friction in her family, especially with her sister—and especially after Rose marries an American journalist. Rose and Gameela don’t part on the best of terms when Rose emigrates with Mark to New York, to get her PhD in archaeology from Columbia. They speak on the phone, but they never see each other again. The friction, misunderstandings, and emotional baggage all pile on to Rose’s grief, threatening to pull her under.

When the book opens, Rose is sifting through her sister’s belongings to try and figure out what happened during the last months of her life. She learns that her sister had quite her job some time ago without telling anyone, that she had been traveling but no one knew where, and that she was married to a man Rose had never heard of. The discoveries floor her. The discoveries, I think, also pull the focus of the book away from the specific question of how Gameela came to be killed. Instead, A Pure Heart seems to be more interested in what we choose to hide from the important people in our lives. Mark, Rose’s husband, is comfortable with his many roles: husband, son, nominal Muslim, journalist, Egyptophile, and so on. Gameela is more tortured by her secrets. She’s even a bit tortured by the parts of herself that she does reveal. For example, she’s frequently mocked for her faith and hijab. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but see Rose as caught between two people who are different sides of the same coin. Both want to be good and do good things. The difference is that one is comfortable with his world view and various selves. The other hasn’t found an easy balance.

This review leaves out a lot of plot, but I found the family and religious and moral dynamics more interesting. Besides, this book is technically a mystery. I don’t want to ruin the joy of figuring things out for other readers. And I would definitely recommend this book to others. Book clubs will find plenty to talk about and readers who like to mull over original family conflict. As a bonus, Hassib does sterling work in recreating a Cairo that many of us Westerners are not familiar with. There is the odd pyramid, but A Pure Heart takes us to a variety of neighborhoods with passages that evoke sights, smells, and the feel of the ancient, still lively city.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who need to find a way to get along with family who have different points of view. This book might help remind them of the price of refusing to really listen to each other.

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