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Fireworks, by Sarah Houssayni

April 4, 2015

Fireworks, by Sarah Houssayni. Anaphora Literary Press (2015), Paperback, 180 pages.

3 stars

A novel about two young women, one American and one Lebanese, who were caught in Beirut when the Israelis started bombing the city in 2006.

Zahra is a fifteen year-old Muslim girl living with her mother in near poverty. When the bombing starts they are helped to escape their neighborhood by a neighbor. Later Zahra discovers that the cost for that assistance has been a promise for her to marry the neighbor’s son, a man she considers ugly and repulsive. Angie is a thirty year-old nurse from Kansas City who has taken a summer job in Beirut hoping to get over a break-up with her Jewish boy friend and the particularly affecting death of a baby for whom she was caring.  As the book progresses Angie seems as young as Zahra.

The stories of the two women are told in alternating chapters, a structure that highlights the difference in their options when the bombs start falling. Their stories are so divergent, however, that I felt I was constantly interrupting one book to read another. Trying to review Fireworks is like reviewing two books at once. Both women have mothers who try to control them, but Angie has more options, perhaps as much because of her age and her ability to support herself as the difference in their cultures. I have recently read and reviewed several books with different narratives being told in different chapters. It can work well when connections exist between the stories, as in The Gap Year. But it  can also create problems, as in Romantic Outlaws, where the stories were confusingly alike, or in The Grace Keepers, where the narratives were too separate, as they are here.

Sarah Houssayni is Lebanese woman who came to America to study medicine and become a pediatrician. She lives in Wichita, Kansas, where parts of the book take place, and practices medicine there. She also teaches at Kansas University. Her writing comes out of her own experience as a doctor and as a Lebanese.   Fireworks is a well-intentioned book written to encourage reader to care for others, including those who are different and those dying in unnecessary wars. As a Lebanese woman living in the United States, Houssayni seems intent on explaining to readers in the United States that Lebanese have legitimate reasons to fight against Israeli attempts to destroy them and to be angry at the U.S. for supplying Israel with weapons being used to kill them.   She deserves praise for her inclusion of a positive gay character and for Angie’s concern for a nephew being pressured by his parents for being too much like a girl.  I liked her effort to move away from traditional romantic solutions, but she offers little unifying theme as an alternative. Despite the need of both women to escape the bombing, the novel offers little tension or suspense. Dialog seems limited to Zahra protesting her forced marriage and Angie asking naïve questions about why Lebanese hate Americans.

This book is an admirable introduction to the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially for those who believe that Israel can do no wrong.  Other books do a better job of treating the complexity of that violence and the larger topic of war invading daily life.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Anaphora Literary Press for sending me a copy of this book for review.


Related novels on the Isreal-Arab conflict. See my reviews.

Haifa Fragments, by Khulud Khamis. 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2015 5:35 pm

    Interesting. I like the idea of it; it’s a shame it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. This happens, sometimes, when a debut author is writing to get something off her chest.
    I’ve read a few Australian versions of this ‘please-understand-my-culture-that’s-not-getting-a-fair-go-in-the-media’ agenda, and like you, I’ve found that while there may be all kinds of problems with the novel (that should have been addressed by a good editor) the interest in reading an alternative point-of-view often makes up for the shortcomings.

  2. April 5, 2015 12:01 am

    Sounds as if the writer could have benefited from more help via her agent and publisher so fix some of those issues. Shame it didn’t work out because it sounded a good plot.

    • April 5, 2015 12:05 am

      I wonder whether it might be a case of the book being rejected by the mainstream publishers which have the resources for extra editing when it’s needed, and a smaller publisher with a more open-minded outlook towards diversity not having enough resources.

  3. April 7, 2015 11:55 am

    Yes, small presses lack the editing resources to assist new authors like this one. And there is another factor to consider. Most writers are truly devoted to writing as a craft and have studied it. Even if they have a “day job,” becoming a skilled writer is a primary goal. Houssayn is a medical doctor raising two boys. I am impressed that she found time to write about a situation she cares about, but I doubt that her focus is primarily on her writing. That said I am impressed with her concerns and what she does accomplish in this book. Given the abundance of pro-Israel sentiment in the US, her book is important even if lacking in literary excellence. It is solid and good, and I hope it is widely read.

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