From The New Yorker, January 24, 2011.
I seem to be on an international kick lately, easing into the world with Anthony Doerr who is totally American but sets his stories in a variety of global locations, then continuing with Amos Oz and his kibbutz gardener, returning to Ha Jin and the Chinese and Chinese-American community in Flushing, NY, and now, a middle-eastern tale of an Arab family from an as-yet unnamed country.
As a side note, I’ve been given to understand by other reviewers that this story is probably an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am so saddened by all the novel excerpt appearing as stories in The New Yorker. Yes, authors want people to read their books, and that’s certainly one way to do it, but a short story is a short story and an excerpt is not, it serves the book, not the story. That being said, I might be interested in continuing to know more about this family, particularly since there is at least one enticing thread dangling in front of me, and like my cat, I can not resist playing with it. But I am annoyed at the same time and thus am feeling stubborn.
The story is told from the first person looking back point of view of Nuri, a young child in most of the story, and his father (a former government minister in the aforementioned unnamed country), his mother, and Naima, the maid. I found the story extremely difficult to read, as the time and place shifts all over the place and the transitions are not particularly clear. The first paragraph mentions Cairo and speaks of summer getaways, and then we are in Norway, but refers to Cairo and sets brief phrases there so it took some close reading to figure out with “in winter when the sky got dark early and Mother worried about her making the long commute home” that we were back in Cairo (which I would not think has a problem with early dusk in winter, being so near the equator, but I’ve never been there so I’ll defer to greater knowledge). This switching back and forth happens a lot, and I ended up drawing a timeline to trace the movement of the family from their country to Marseilles-Paris to Cairo and then to holidays in the Swiss Alps, Norway, and Agamy Beach. This is not a casual beach read, or a subway book, at least not for me. But then again, I may just be dense.
The story contains many wonderful moments, as Nuri fleshes out his relationship with his mother, with Naima, and with his father. The boy’s mother dies, and of course things change. The story basically covers this period, which is why it reads like an excerpt and not a story. There’s no reason it should end where it does, and there seems to be a lot more to know:
I did not know then why Mother looked better in photographs taken before I was born. I do not mean to imply younger but altogether brighter, as if she had just stepped off a carousel; her hair settling, her eyes anticipating more joy. And in those photographs you could almost hear a kind of joyful music in the background. Then, after I arrived, it all changed. For a long time, before I knew the truth, I thought it was the physical assault of pregnancy that had claimed her cheery disposition.
We don’t learn in the course of this story what “the truth” is. I had suspected it was the potentially dangerous political fallout of his father’s descent from king’s top advisor to exile, but on my closer reading to map out the story, (and in my tour around other reviews of the story) I discovered something else. The story is, after all, about Naima. In Norway, both Nuri and his mother miss Naima. After Mother dies, Father is awkward with his son, and deals with him mostly through Naima, asking her if he’s eaten or brushed his teeth; they “came to resemble two flat-sharing bachelors held together by circumstance or obligation. But then at the most unexpected moments, a tenderhearted sympathy, raw and sudden, would rise in him…” Nuri says of his mother, “She was as close as I ever came to having a sister.” And, “Sometimes at night I would wake up and find her there, studying my face. She would force a smile and depart, quietly closing the door behind her, as if I were not hers.” And I wonder: is this boy not her son? He comments on his skin, darker than either of his parents, perhaps a throwback to his great-great-grandfather who is almost – almost – as dark as he is, while Naima has “Nubian” skin. I wonder: is Nuri her son? Some friends of the father’s from Paris arrive for the mother’s funeral, and one seems to have particular significance, down to the smell he leaves on Nuri’s pillow. For a while I thought maybe he was the father, some illicit affair with Naima, but the timing is wrong. Nuri “breathed Paris air for the first eight months” of his life. This was immediately following his father’s exile from their country, before Cairo, but Naima was their maid even then. I am not sure, and frankly, I’m a little annoyed at the hoops I’ve already had to jump through to parse this story, so I’m not inclined to continue, particularly for an excerpt where the answer is not given (or even strongly hinted at, as it would be in most stand-alone stories). In fact, I’m downright annoyed at this point.
But it’s a fascinating story of interesting people who do things that are unusual to me, and for that, I enjoyed reading it. And I may even check out the novel when it appears, though most likely I will get a library copy instead of buying it.
Addendum: This story also appears in 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories.