Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship's Reviews > Mornings in Jenin

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
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Jan 06, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: historical-fiction, world-books-challenge, palestine, middle-east, 2-stars, family-saga, op-ed-books
Read in December, 2011

A Palestinian perspective on the conflict in the Middle East? Yes, this book delivers that. A good novel? No, not that.

This book starts with the idyllic lives of Palestinian villagers in the early 1940s. It moves on to describe their displacement into a refugee camp, where the main character, Amal, is born. From there it (mostly) follows her life up until the early 2000s. Amal grows up in the camp, but a scholarship is her ticket out and from there her life takes some interesting turns until she finally winds up back in the camp again. (No spoilers; that's in the prologue.)

So here's the thing about this book. It feels very raw and angry; emotionally honest even where it's playing fast and loose with the facts. It's one of the most manipulative books I've ever read. It's almost impossible to lose sight, even for a moment, of the fact that the author is Making A Point. The writing, on the sentence level, is not bad. There are some good insights and connections drawn. But it's so heavy-handed in its message, so depressingly predictable in its tragedy, so insistent in telling the reader how to feel, that the agenda tends to overwhelm the novel.

I do think the author makes some effort to be fair. The individual Jewish characters in this book are mostly not bad people. But at the same time, the Palestinian characters are so full of strength, love and solidarity that there's barely a flaw to be found in any of them (and those few flaws they have are all directly attributable to abuses suffered at the hands of Israeli soldiers). And while the author doesn't exactly deny that some Palestinians have done some ugly things, she also doesn't mention these things until late in the book (even when, chronologically, they happened much earlier), after these people have suffered so much apparently unprovoked abuse that it's impossible to imagine them not fighting back. Even then, she glosses over the uglier stuff.

So the manipulation of the timeline, the idealization of the Palestinians and their pre-1948 lives, and the selectivity about where the book goes all make it difficult to trust Abulhawa, even though much of what she tells us is probably true. My impression is that she assumes her readers have already heard the Israeli side, and she's here to give us the Palestinian side. No doubt this is true of many readers, but I expect more from a novel than a slanted answer to slanted media reports. There are places where the book tries to rise above that, most notably one of the scenes with David toward the end of the book, but much more often it simply rants about Israel.

If that were the only problem with the book, I'd probably still give it 3 stars. But then there's the writing. The narration leaps, without any apparent rhyme or reason, between first- and third-person, between two different first-person narrators, between past and present tense. (Writing Yousef's POV in first person, present tense was a particularly ill-considered decision, resulting in passages like: "I reach my hand to touch. But he backs away. Later, not now, I am sure that it was not a dream." Got that?) And there's this constant fast-forwarding and rewinding to tell an entire subplot in a paragraph, as if the author's afraid we won't remember some plot element by the time it reappears. And then the narration jumps around and skips over tons of time. (It was cool that Amal and I share an alma mater. It would have been cooler if a single word had been said about her time there.)

In the end, I'm conflicted about this book. I did cry at the end (sucker for dramatic death scenes that I am). There are interesting plot elements; there's a good story in there somewhere. I did learn a bit. I do think there's a lot of truth to what's presented in this book, and that the author could have made her points, and more effectively, without being so heavy-handed. But this just isn't the novel that it could have been.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Without having read the book, I have to comment on just that first line of the review: "the idyllic lives of Palestinian villagers in the early 1940s," In light of, for example, the Arab Revolt of 36-39 which by some estimates saw the Arab population literally decimated by British reprisal. Any portrayal of mandatory Palestine as any kind of timeless idyll, on either side, is basically immediately suspect as propaganda.

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship Well, that's.... beyond what I'd classify as acceptable simplification in a historical novel, and in line with the rest of the book.

I don't know if it comes across just through the word choice, but I'm suspect of any book that portrays a society as "idyllic" before Group X shows up. This is such a perennial problem in historical fiction, you have to wonder about any author who doesn't think people are imperfect even when left to their own devices. In this case I did keep reading anyway, but.... yeah, it was obvious from early on where this was going.

message 3: by Tamara (new)

Tamara I guess thats why i'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, where the history is the point, (Well, one reason anyway.) Real history typically gets in the way of a good narrative, reality doesn't have to be consistent and all that, and honestly, real history is usually *more* interesting, contradictions and all.

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship I like stories. I'm sure I'd learn more if so much space in books wasn't taken up by dialogue and character development and scenes and so on, but I've never been able to get into nonfiction as a way to spend my free time.

At any rate, I do quite like HF and generally find it to do a much better job than this book does. All genres have their unfortunate tropes that occasionally pop up but compared to fantasy.... if this book was a fantasy I'm quite sure it would be universally considered "gray," nuanced, and thoughtful. I would think that myself. Of course our standards for HF are very different, but that allows it to do so much more when it gets things right.

message 5: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat Reading Sutcliffe and Treece's children's historical fiction lead me into reading history. Nowadays I do find that if I come across something in HF has seems wrong it does put me off the book. But I put this just down to being irritable.

Authors do have their historical favourites though, and maybe in this case it was more a case of political than historical fiction - mind you Mantell in Wolf Hall set back in Tudor times definitely had a political agenda to push for Th.Cromwell to be positivity re-evaluated and for Th.Moore to be knocked down a peg or two.

It doesn't change, it's just how well the author does it and palatable you find it.

message 6: by Tamara (new)

Tamara Maybe the point re political vs historical is more important, really, but I do think all portrayals of history perforce have an agenda. (OTOH, I sometimes think we don't really have history here anymore, in the region between the Jordan river and the mediterranean sea, we just have really, really old politics.)

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship I dunno, all authors in all genres have opinions and worldviews, but most of the HF I read doesn't seem agenda-driven. There are books that want to make the reader rethink a historical figure or use the past to comment on the present, but plenty more primarily want to tell a good story. (Maybe some difference among what types of HF though--most of the books I read don't feature historical figures.)

But then some books are just overly didactic. Even where I actually agree with the author, I don't much like those books.

Deryn Exactly what I thought of the book - though I loved the insight into the culture - the book was poorly written - very poorly written 2 stars is what it deserves

Zain Duraie I disagree with all of you. I think it's a beautiful moving book and the history she describes is a huge part of an ordeal the Palestinians are still living until this day and suffering from it. The sabra and shatilla massacre is a huge example and no one was took their fake punishment on it , they let it pass like many other things. It's a beautifully written book with a real human emotion, a realistic story which makes fiction so real and has a truth and genuinely to it. Susan did a phenomenal job and the whole world should read this book to be able to digest what really went down in the past and how it still effects the whole Arab world in general not only Palestine. Great job Susan, you are my hero.

Andrew Hall I agree with Zain, and I think the reason Susan had to be so heavy handed was because their story has never been permitted to be told. Arafat has always been seen as a terrorist, yet Sharon has always been heroised, they were equally as bad, with similar ideals for their people. The atrocities carried out and permitted by the Israeli's is a disgrace, they cannot forever carry the holocaust card as a free card to do the same thing to others. All war is bad, all war is futile, especially in the name of religion. I wasn't bothered by the flipping from narrator to first person, it made me feel like I was in the room with someone telling me Amal's story, and then as the story opened we saw it from Amal's eyes.

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship I am not sure I understand the argument here. Is it that if nasty things have happened to a group of people whose voices are generally not paid much attention in the country where a book is targeted, even poorly-written propaganda about that group is somehow good?

Andrew Hall i disagree that it is poorly written, and how much one suded propaganda do we see from the opposite side?

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship I don't believe I've ever encountered an Israeli propaganda novel, but even if there were a slew of them, that wouldn't make this a good novel. There is absolutely a place for arguing one's views and responding to opposing views, but that's called an op-ed, or an essay. This is supposed to be a novel.

Andrew Hall Fine, you didn't like it, Idid, and I didn't think your reasons for disliking were not something I saw as bad things. It was a perspective from her eyes, which every novel is.

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship Hey, you're the one who came onto my review to disagree with me. Don't get huffy because you haven't changed my mind.

Andrew Hall not at all, you are entitled to your opinion as I am, no issue at all :).

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