The storyteller returns: Susan Abulhawa’s tale of displacement and destiny

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The Blue Between Sky and Water is another legendary literary swooner by Susan Abulhawa, her second novel after the iconic Mornings in Jenin (a tough act to follow). This new captivating  familial story weaves archetypal characters, shapeshifting through time with enviable fluidity, with a supple network of interconnectedness running through all their lives.

Cover Art: The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa
Cover Art: The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa

Abulhawa opens every chapter with a narration from a boy, Khalid, who guides the reader through generations of the Baraka family from Beit Daras, a village in southern Palestine “consumed by the fog of death” during the catastrophic destruction of 1948 when

the violence of an alien story burned those meandering native days, and the Mediterranean Sea lapped at our history’s wounds along the shores of Gaza.

Khalid first appears as the imagined friend of a visionary little girl, Miriam, generations before his own birth. Thus a primarily matriarchal story runs through Khalid; and his presence, and unfaltering conscience, are constant narrative reinforcements through even the darkest, most lacerating and vulgar, gut-wrenching and turbulent passages.

Miriam and her sister Nazmiyeh are daughters of the village crazy woman, Um Mamdouh, whose eyes could roll in her sockets as she’d turn into the harrowing djinn Sulayman. As his presence emerged within her Um Mamdouh would spit gibberish

in a voice that thundered from all directions, and a cauterizing smell, like pollution, soaked the air.

After the massacre of Beit Daras, many of the surviving villagers who were violently expelled became refugees in Gaza, as others fanned out into the diaspora. Nazmiyeh “hung the sky every morning, like a sapphire sheet on a clothesline pirouetting in the breeze”, while another child, Nur, gets lost along the way — separated from her family through a series of tragic circumstances, and forced to navigate her way through an impersonal foster care system in the US. A sexually exploited child who’s out of place and doesn’t like herself– “Fate had been cruel to take one of our own, assembled her destiny from pieces of loneliness, exile, rejection and longing“– Nur fortunately has a persistent real life guardian angel in Nzinga (reminiscent of Maya Angelou – whom I thought of several times throughout the story although her name wasn’t mentioned). 

The story involves Nur finding her way back home, to her family and the home she never knew and didn’t know she was missing. Through an inheritance of her birth — not knowing its true value  — she unknowingly hides the clue to her ancestry. 

Nazmiyeh, the story’s charismatic exotic matriarch, (once the “prettiest and baddest girl” in all of Beit Daras with her wild crop of arrogant curls) is forever on the lookout for Nur. The tension and anticipation of discovery is achingly alluring. Although many secrets are woven into the book, like life’s puzzles, they become masterfully untangled as the story unfolds. Once Nur arrives in Gaza from the U.S., where she’d been living in a mental cocoon, the rhythm of her destiny shifts momentously.

It took some effort for Nur to unlearn the American assumptions she came with. The first time she took a shower in our home, Teta had to storm into the bathroom and shut the tap water off before she used our entire water supply for the month. Then Moma taught her how to wash by scooping water from a small wash bucket and to recycle as much of the used water as she could. The dirty water had to be captured in another bucket that we used for flushing the toilet. Rhet Shel helped her learn to navigate life without electricity during the long power cuts. And Teta taught her the best curse words, when to use them, and how to confront harassment from men on the street. “If you tell them to get lost and they don’t, pick up the biggest rock you can lift and go at them with every intention to bash it on their heads. Look crazy. Trust me, they won’t bother you anymore.” My uncle’s wives taught her how to remove the hair with caramelized sugar. “Men shave. You’re not a man,” they had admonished her. Her most intractable assumption, perhaps, was that fate could be controlled with a host of myths ranging from hard work to winning the lottery; or that ill fate could somehow be redeemed by objections or lawsuits. The day following the violence at the Dunes, without intending to, Mama and Teta showed Nur how to carry on without bitterness.

As that passage demonstrates, Abulhawa has the gift of storytelling. Like Mornings in Jenin, readers experience the story as a timeless legend that’s been around for a long long time. Her multi layered characters have an air of surety for the reader, even the fantastical Sulayman. Everything is immensely believable — her capricious movements through time and space merge concisely with hilarious erratic dinner table banter and sideways all-knowing glances. Love is pervasive and vaporously present even when it’s seemingly inaccessible.

When you reach the end, the story continues in imagination through hope, possibility, rejuvenation. The Blue Between Sky and Water is mercurial, ethereal yet dense. I’m not sure how Abulhawa pulls it off so lyrically. She has that inherent poetic capacity.

Her voice and style will be emulated by young writers way into the future. Her literary characters traverse time and space in a manner that makes for depth of understanding between generations. Very fitting for a story about Palestine, very fitting for people destined to survive.

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Wonderful. Thanks for this review.

Thanks for this article, and the author for her latest book.

Hate to be nitpicking, Annie, but how could a book that’s just coming out be called “legendary”?

annie says

“we all know great ideas come in altered states of mind”

beautifully put.legends retain elements of truths that shine like stars in a dark sky.more important they add to one,s accumulation of positive knowledge, to be passed on from generation to generation.threads woven in the tapestry of life

Annie this is a wonderful review for an exceptionally wonderful and magical book. I bought the book last Thursday at Book Passage in Corte Madera and could not put it down as every page drew me further and further into the story which I read through occasional tears and admiration… Read more »