Book 12 of my 2016 Reading Challenge
read from January 22 - 25
In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib
Summary (via Goodreads)
Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy appear to have attained the American dream. After immigrating to the United States from Egypt, Samir successfully works his way through a residency and launches his own medical practice as Nagla tends to their firstborn, Hosaam, in the cramped quarters of a small apartment. Soon the growing family moves into a big house in the manicured New Jersey suburb of Summerset, where their three children eventually attend school with Natalie Bradstreet, the daughter of their neighbors and best friends. More than a decade later, the family’s seemingly stable life is suddenly upended when a devastating turn of events leaves Hosaam and Natalie dead and turns the Al-Menshawys into outcasts in their own town.
Narrated a year after Hosaam and Natalie’s deaths, Rajia Hassib’s heartfelt novel follows the Al-Menshawys during the five days leading up to the memorial service that the Bradstreets have organized to mark the one-year anniversary of their daughter’s death. While Nagla strives to understand her role in the tragedy and Samir desperately seeks reconciliation with the community, Khaled, their surviving son, finds himself living in the shadow of his troubled brother. Struggling under the guilt and pressure of being the good son, Khaled turns to the city in hopes of finding happiness away from the painful memories home conjures. Yet he is repeatedly pulled back home to his grandmother, Ehsan, who arrives from Egypt armed with incense, prayers, and an unyielding determination to stop the unraveling of her daughter’s family. In Ehsan, Khaled finds either a true hope of salvation or the embodiment of everything he must flee if he is ever to find himself.
Writing with unflinchingly honest prose, Rajia Hassib tells the story of one family pushed to the brink by tragedy and mental illness, trying to salvage the life they worked so hard to achieve. The graceful, elegiac voice of In the Language of Miracles paints tender portraits of a family’s struggle to move on in the wake of heartbreak, to stay true to its traditions, and above all else, to find acceptance and reconciliation.
It really is unfair how some nationalities/religions are held to a higher standard than others. This book made me uncomfortable because it was unfortunately realistic to see how a town reacted to and shunned an entire family for the actions of one in a way they wouldn't if the son had been Christian and/or white. I hated the stigma of being his family; why should his siblings have a hard time going to school? It isn't fair.
Nagla's feelings of 'mother's guilt' was so understandable and relatable, even as most things were out of her control, as shown in this quote from the text:
"Nagla looked at her own reflection. She had often heard of grief-stricken people who woke up one morning with grayed hair, the discoloring a testament to their shock at what life had thrown their way. Her hair, despite all that she had gone through, was still jet black. She ran her fingers through it, ruffling it, looking for any gray strands. Her hair's resistance to graying felt like a betrayal of her son.
Perhaps this was one more thing she had failed at."
Khalid feels guilt too - his speech was heartfelt and touching. Samir made me cringe with his complete inability to read a room or situation, continually inserting himself where he wasn't wanted and not helping his family much at all.
I like the comparisons between English and Arabic prayers/sayings at the beginning of each chapter. For example, one was "English: Birds of a feather flock together" followed by "Arabic: Birds fall upon those similar to them". Another was "English: The truth shall prevail" followed by "Arabic: Lies have no legs".
I like the message in the Arabic prayer Allahuma enna la nasaloka rad alqadaa, walaken nasaloka al-lotfa feih (God, we do not ask You to thwart fate, but we do ask You to execute it with gentleness).
I felt there was room for more; it was just starting to get below the surface and then it ended. There was lots of buildup for a rushed ending but it was still a good journey.
A Few Quotes from the Book
"Reaching out, she let one hand gently brush through the air where she thought he would have passed, twelve years earlier. She held her hand in place, at around shoulder level, a little bit lower. If time travel were possible, she would be able to go back to this same spot, and he would be right there, right where her hand now hovered, with his black wavy hair and large round eyes that so resembled her father's. He would have been just tall enough for her hand to rest on the top of his head. Carefully, she moved her palm from side to side, stroking an imaginary head. She waved her hand through this spot of air one last time, then sat down, closed her eyes, and listened for the whispers and giggles she had heard so many years ago and hoped that the air would eventually carry her way, if she waited long enough."
"His responsibility toward his family meant he had to be prepared. Memorial services tended to remind people not only of their lost ones but also of their anger."