A Girl Made of Dust

Issue section: 
(327)

Nathalie Abi-Ezzi, Fourth Estate, £12.99

It's 1982 and life in a Christian village in the hills above Lebanon's capital, Beirut, is about to change forever. But for Ruba, a ten year old girl who lives in the village with her older brother, parents and grandmother, things loll on pretty much as usual. She plays in the woods with her brother and friends, eats roasted almonds from the nut shop, goes to school, watches her mother cook and clean the house, and tip-toes around her father, slouched on the living room armchair.

But normalcy is wearing thinner by the day. Ruba's mum cleans with more insistence by the minute despite the lack of dust. She cooks ever larger amounts of food as if stashing up for a rainy day. And Ruba's dad is more silent than usual, only the sound of his worry beads giving away that he's still alive. Ruba's brother has also gone slightly haywire, playing with armed boys and not talking as much to his sister any more. Ruba's little world is getting smaller and smaller as the shelling from Beirut moves closer up the hill.

Nathalie Abi-Ezzi's debut novel, A Girl Made of Dust, is a timely reminder of the agonies thousands of Lebanese families had to go through during the years of the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1990, not least with regard to Israel's war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Abi-Ezzi's characters, broken by years of worrying about friends and family as well as food and electricity shortages, are portrayed nakedly in all their vulnerabilities.

As Maronites they first welcome Israel's invasion, wishing good riddance to the Palestinians camped out in Beirut and in other places in Lebanon. They soon change their tack, and not only because the bombs start falling on their own house but because people from all sects and religions are being killed indiscriminately. The massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps Sabra and Shatilla by Phalange militiamen, backed up by the Israeli army, in particular has a big impact on Ruba's dad who wakes a little from his apathetic state to condemn what fascist Christian fighters are doing.

The storyline unfolds from a child's perspective - in Ruba's world the war happens all around her while she plays, looking for treasures in the forest, without her paying too much attention to it all - which makes the plot unnervingly real and gripping. Through Ruba's worries about her family, Abi-Ezzi skilfully introduces the reader to a life in fear of bombs and stray bullets, as well as to how new hope can be born from affliction.