The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine

I’ve seen other books described in reviews as dazzling and mostly thought of the adjective as just a synonym for great or wonderful. But as I finished Rabih Alameddine’s monumentally imaginative novel, The Hakawati, I really felt dazzled. At its heart, the novel describes the emotional and physical journey a son makes to visit his father as he lies dying in a hospital in Beirut. But because our protagonist, Osama, is the grandson of a hakawati (an itinerant storyteller), his story is just a kernel for a profusion of other stories. Some of the stories show us Osama’s family history. Others are entirely fantastical and feature demons and djinn. Yet others are a blend of myth and history. This book is stuffed but never feels too long. I would happily have sat at the feet of the storytellers in this book for more.

The primary narrative features a middle-aged Osama returning to Beirut after decades in the United States. He had left the country in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War to study engineering in California. Before he left, Osama was part of a tightly-knit, sprawling family of cousins, aunts and uncles, his parents, and his notorious grandfather. The more we learn about his family, the more we realize that Osama was not just running from violence. He was also running from a philandering father and a brittle mother and warring relatives. I loved the parts of the novel that revealed Osama’s grandfather’s history in pre-World War I Lebanon; it’s like looking into a vanished world.

A second narrative that runs through the entirety of The Hakawati. In this narrative, a woman named Fatima turns her strong will into magic. Her sections are some of the funniest and the bleakest parts of the novel. I adored her entrance. Fatima is the servant of an emir who wants a son. To date, his wife has delivered daughters. The emir learns of a witch who has the secret of bearing a male child. Because he can’t go himself, he sends Fatima. Fatima doesn’t take a large escort because she doesn’t think it’s necessary. So, of course, she and her small party are almost immediately set upon by bandits. To get out of being raped and murdered, Fatima starts to spin a story about how her lover (her “plaything”) is a powerful demon and that none of the bandits could satisfy her. This story causes the bandits to attack each other…and also starts Fatima on a long, strong journey in and out of the underworld.

The last major narrative does a lot of heavy lifting. It’s framed as a story that the emir from the second narrative to his wife while she’s pregnant, to inspire their unborn child to become a great hero. It’s also referenced in Osama’s story as a family favorite. Ultimately, this story—which relates the almost entirely fictional adventures of a real-life historical figure, Mamluk sultan Baibars—blends prophecy, propaganda, and a smidgeon of history. Late in The Hakawati, a young Osama is shocked to learn that this beloved story is mostly not true. His Uncle Jihad tells him that it doesn’t matter whether or not a story is literally true. Rather, stories are the official versions of our own histories. Stories, literally true or otherwise, are what we want to remember and pass on to the next generation.

These three narratives are surrounded by tangents and side stories. All of these stories not only frame each other (there are so many layers in this book!), they also reinforce each other by repeating motifs. We see couples desperate for male children (Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael make several appearances), lots of jealousy, poor decisions and misuse of magic, plenty of sex and death, family obligations, feuds, and so much more. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to spot the thesis of the book for several chapters. Every theory I came up with would be exploded by a new tale that didn’t fit. Thankfully, I gave that up when I realized I was overthinking things. The Hakawati is a celebration of stories and their power. Because it is full of so many kinds of stories, with so many different characters and plots and endings, The Hakawati has something for everyone—especially for readers who are never tired of hearing a new yarn.

River of Ink, by Paul M.M. Cooper

Throughout Paul M.M. Cooper’s novel, River of Ink, protagonist Asanka is taunted by his lover that “poetry does nothing.” For the first third of the book, this is easy to believe. Polonnuwara (northern Sri Lanka) has just been conquered by Kalinga Magha. The previous king had his eyes gouged out and was beheaded right in front of Asanka. Asanka is terrified of the new king, too afraid to act when others around him start resisting and rebelling. Besides, what can a court poet do anyway? By the end of River of Ink, we learn that a poet can be a hero.

Asanka doesn’t lose his position as court poet after the old king’s murder. The new king is paranoid and violent, but has aspirations to bring the glories of Hindu religion and culture to the island. So, in the middle of the violence, Kalinga Magha gives Asanka a task: to translate the Shishupala Vadha into Sinhala and Tamil from Sanskrit. The epic poem, which tells the story of Krishna killing the villain Shishupal, is extraordinarily complex. Even in peacetime, without a madman supervising the job, translating the Shishupala Vadha would be a huge undertaking. It’s a wonder that Asanka can take on even a small part of it without dissolving in a puddle of terror.

Surprisingly, Asanka finds a way to turn the mad king’s favorite poem against him. The sabotage starts small. First, Asanka starts to describe the villain of the poem using Kalinga Magha’s enormous eyebrows. The king doesn’t spot the caricature, but the people do. Asanka’s parody of the king gets bigger and bigger. By the end, Asanka is mocking the Hindu gods and heroes—to the delight of everyone who can see the comedy. The oblivious king helps spread the poem by having it copied and published as soon as Asanka completes a section.

While Asanka continues his subterfuge with the Shishupala Vadha, he has a mystery to unravel. He starts to receive short poems that break all the rules of poetry he spent his life mastering. The poems are narrated by characters from the Shishupala Vadha, explaining their motives and adding to the story. The secret poet helps Asanka make bigger changes to the original poem, pushing further into satire and mockery.

Throughout River of Ink, Kalinga Magha tells Asanka it’s his dharma to translate the Shishupala Vadha and bring it to the people of Sri Lanka. Dharma is usually translated as duty, but this misses the nuance of the word. Kalinga Magha believe that the poet’s dharma is whatever the king tells him it is. But in truth, dharma is a higher duty to do the right thing.

The Bhagavad Gita is referenced a number of times in River of Ink. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna is told over and over (by Krishna, no less) that it’s his duty to make war on his brothers. By making war, Arjuna will restore the status quo. This is the simplest reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the one that Kalinga Magha espouses: might can make right. But Asanka, near the end of River of Ink, says something that reminded me of the philosophy professor who taught me the Bhagavad Gita when I was an undergrad. Perhaps one’s higher duty, one’s dharma, is to respond to violence with nonviolence. (My philosophy professor would be pleased. He told us that he cited the Bhagavad Gita when he declared himself to be a conscientious objector when he was drafted for Vietnam.)

Does poetry accomplish nothing? Not in Asanka’s hands. In spite of his cowardice, Asanka’s translation takes away much of the fear people feel for the invaders and their new king. The king tells Asanka that it’s his dharma to translate the Shishupala Vadha and, while this might be Asanka’s fate, the poet still has the free will to decide how he will translate the poem.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 January 2016.

The Gallows Curse, by Karen Maitland

I have to describe The Gallows Curse, by Karen Maitland, as both historical fiction and historical fantasy. The more I read of Maitland’s work, the more I wonder about a medieval world where magic was real. Everything else I’ve learned about the time period—the extreme violence, the power of the church, the lingering pagan practices, and so on—make it seem so alien from the modern world that magic is not the hardest thing to accept about medieval life. The Gallows Curse opens with a prologue in which a man comes to a witch seeking revenge for his daughter. The man, however, lied to the witch about why he wanted the poison. When the witch is convicted and sentenced to die (horribly), she curses the man’s family. The novel is the story of how that curse plays out for the next generation, even as King John is chasing French agents all over England and traitors are everywhere.

There is nothing remarkable about Elena other than she is kind to Master Raffaele brings her to the manor house, promoting her from field-working villein to tiring maid for his mistress, Lady Anne. A strange scene plays out while Lady Anne interviews Elena. They ask her repeatedly to eat the bread and salt they’ve laid out for her. As soon as she finished the odd meal, Elena is hired and dismissed for the rest of the day. Then Raffaele takes the body out of the chest Elena was sitting on and removes it to the cellar of the manor. Only then do we learn that Elena has been chosen to serve as sin-eater for the recently deceased master.

Raffaele and Elena take turns narrating the events of The Gallows Curse. Maitland never tips her hand, leaving the reader to slowly piece together the clues the characters drop. This is a gory, terrifying read. Elena eventually has to seek refuge in a brothel that caters to the kinks of the nobility. Raffaele has to deal with the new lord of the manor, Osbourn of Roxham, and his hunt-mad brother. Osbourn and his retinue have been sent to seek out French agents and traitors. They are the proto-typical bloodthirsty aristocrats that make one (okay, made me) wish for an equally proto-typical communist to level the playing field. Osbourn commits unjust act after unjust act, but no one can touch him because he has the king’s favor. Still, Gastmere is a long way from London. Anything could happen in the hinterlands.

What eventually brings the scales of justice back into balance is the revelation that the local witch is the granddaughter of the witch from the prologue and the Osbourn and his brother are the sons of the man who caused that witch’s death. (I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s fairly easy to work this out from the narrative.) There are enough supernatural phenomena in The Gallows Curse to make it easy to believe that the Osbourn is not long for this world, even if Raffaele and Elena and their allies think he’s untouchable.

I’ve enjoyed Maitland’s other novels, Owl Killers and Company of Liars, but The Gallows Curse was too violent and disjointed for me. Raffaele was a wonderful character, but Elena struck me as the kind of helpless damsel that gets on my nerves. For most of the novel, her dialog consists mostly of repetitions of “I can’t” or “I won’t” before being coerced into doing whatever it is she can’t or won’t do. She’s had no reason to develop grit in her character and it takes her a long time to become as strong as many of the other characters. I understand that a girl like Elena wouldn’t have a lot of options, being a wanted criminal and escaped villein—but this is fiction. Make something up! So, unfortunately, I have to close The Gallows Curse feeling disappointed.