Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World is a powerful commentary on forced migration, displacement and occupation. True to the title, it is the battle of survival against a loveless world, as the author provides a thought-provoking narrative on the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Displacement, survival, longing, and belonging are the primary theme threads running seamlessly in this novel.
Narrated as a flashback, this is the story of Nahr, a Palestinian, born in Kuwait to refugees. The novel begins in ‘the Cube,’- a state-of-the-art prison cell in Israel displaying all the trappings of the latest Israeli surveillance technology. The nine-square meter cell has been her home for sixteen long years, though she doesn’t know that, as Nahr has no access to a clock inside her confinement. Cut off from her family, the only visitors the prison officials permit are reporters who she believes are not really keen on hearing her thoughts.
She has no one to talk to except the walls. Until one day when a sympathetic guard gives her two pencils and a notebook, which she fills with her story.
Abulhawa has named the chapters after the sides of the six faces of the Cube: East, West, North, South, Up, Down, plus The Space Between; each explores the prison cell from different directions and perspectives. The story progresses to lend a complete 360-degree view of Nahr, her life, the prison cell, and the world beyond. Sitting inside the Cube, Nahr revisits her thoughts and reminisces about her life journey. Starting with her birth in Kuwait, Nahr shares stories of her growing up in a rigidly patriarchal society, arranged marriage, and subsequent abandonment, US invasion, gang rape, her work as an escort, fleeing to Jordan, her ties with Palestine and finally meeting Bilal, a war hero who becomes the love of her life.
In the quiet and reflective narrative, we visualize the ordinary lives of Palestinians under occupation, and the effect it has on Nahr and her family. We get to understand their fears, desperation for survival, loss, and the unwillingness to return.
Abulhawa’s complex characterization is praise-worthy. The characters are deep and unforgettable. Their battles are real, compelling, and thought-provoking. They are not solitary, and the author narrates their intertwined and connected stories in a sensitive manner.
It is impossible to not admire Nahr for who she is. A strong-willed, spirited, unapologetic woman who is determined to find love in a loveless world. She is committed to justice, even when she has little control over her life. She is tough, yet vulnerable; and these reflect in her steely resolve.
Even amidst the war and tension, the author has created a beautiful and comforting space for the characters to fall in love, discover each other and experience the joyous beauty of familial ties and loyal friendships.
Abulhwa’s title is derived from James Baldwin’s works and he finds a suitable mention in the novel, as Nahr and Bilal ponder upon love and its relationship with pain.
It is never easy to write stories about conflict. There is no easy or right answer, and opinions vary depending on which side of the fence one is in; the same is clear here. The author paints a poor image of the Israelis as being cruel, heartless, and irrational in their behaviour. While projecting the Palestinians as virtuous, brave, and principled. Nevertheless, this makes for powerful reading.
‘Against the Loveless World’ is a character-driven novel with a strong plot, universal themes, sensitive narration, and gorgeous writing.
Trigger Warning–mentions of rape, death, abuse, miscarriage, violence, torture, and forced displacement.
Wordsopedia Rating 4.8/5
|Title: Against the Loveless World
|Author: Susan Abulhawa
|Publisher: Atria Books, Bloomsbury Circus
|Publication date: April 19, 2019
|Genre: Fiction – Contemporary
|No. of Pages: 384
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About the author
Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian American writer and human rights activist. She is the author of several books, and the founder of a non-governmental organization, Playgrounds for Palestine. She lives in Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Mornings in Jenin, was translated into 32 languages and sold over a million copies.
Get in touch with the author on her website.